This story never happened.
I stood partially frozen at the side of stage. My nerves uneasy, eyes locked on the scratches in the wood below my feet. That small stage seemed twice as large that night. With each name called I counted the footsteps. 42. 39. 44. Without even raising my eyes I knew I was roughly 45 steps to the next phase in my life. The longest steps of my life. I took a deep breath and, at that very moment, they called my name. One foot in front of the other, right hand outreached to grab the rolled up, ribbon laced paper. Straight across and off the stage. Not once looking at all the people to my left. The last day of high school. The best and worst days of my life. Of that life.
The next four years were a blur. University. Blink. And missed it. I remember my parents dropping me off at my residence. They walked me into my room to look around and help me get set up. My step-dad ran through a list of things for me. Watching out. Call the phone company. Head to the bookstore early to avoid the lines. One by one. I kept a mental checklist. And then I watched from my new second story window as the back of the family car moved farther and farther into the distance. Alone, for the first time ever.
Those four years went fast. Yet took forever. I met new friends. Lifelong friends. Failed a course. Passed the rest. I played sports, and coached another. I went through money like water. Not my own. I met a girl. Lost a girl. Partied too much. Stayed in too much. Lived in the library. Couldn`t stand the library. Loved life. The stress nearly killed me. It came in with a bang and ended with a whimper.
That first day after school ended felt like freedom. One day to relax before the rest of my life showed up knocking at my door. Ready to lock me down for the rest of my days. Or the days ahead. It wasn’t that easy. Even after school I still didn’t feel a connection to a future career. So I put my life on pause. And took a job at a restaurant and bar a few minutes from our family home.
It was the first thing in the morning. The restaurant wasn’t due to open for hours, but I figured someone had to be there. I knocked on the door. Knocked again and again. I could make out a face walking from the back, obviously bothered that I interrupted her opening procedures. A quick hello and I dropped my resume off. And waited. That night my phone rang and I was called in for an interview. That night. It was the worst interview a man could experience. Yet I got the job. The job that was supposed to hold me over until I could make up my mind. A stepping stone, which became a rock.
Something happened along the way. I changed, partly by not changing at all. That first year was supposed to be it. Yet nearly a decade later and I was still at home behind the bar. Secretly I was lost. In comfort. Security. And losing my future. I toiled behind the wood day after day, mixing drinks and stories and listening to everybody’s problems and dreams. Some small. Others life changing. Patrons came and went. But some stayed. Hour after hour. Year after year. Just like me. These were the days of my life. And the wasted days of men twice my age who sought comfort in the lonliness of a bottle.
Like the winds of change, some core patrons came and went. Groups moved in and moved out. Lonely people dropped in to find friendship and conversation. Others needed to drink away their hardships and worries. I knew them all. Talked to each and every one of them. I guess nearly ten thousand in my years. Maybe more. They all came for the same thing. To fill a temporary void in their life. To celebrate a void filled. To escape.
There were the three amigos, the first guys I met during my first days. They all drank beer and sat side by side. Most days. All weekend. They met on the stools in front of the bar. Reserved seats for one another. After a few hours one would head home. The last two would settle in, eventually moving to the house special. “Luc, another beer?” He immediately replied, “Give me the house special.” So I checked the bottles behind me and the juices and syrups along the rail and made something up. “Luc, your house special.” He’d finish the drink, call it a winner and pay his bill. Gone. And then there was one. But he left too.
They remained the same for years until one of the three just up and left. And never came back. Luc had a falling out with one of the amigos so they both up and left. Disappeared. The remaining man stayed but his visits became sparce. Never the same again. Until another crew rolled in. Took over the stools and found a new home. Within days I was calling them by name. All draught drinkers, except for Bob. He drank wine. They were there when my shift started and stayed until it got dark. Every day of the week. Nearly. On Fridays after finishing a few pitchers together they`d all ask the same thing, “Give us the house special.“ I grabbed the same ingredients from years before and grabbed my mixer. “House special boys.“ They`d finish up and leave. I closed up not longer after them.
This pattern went on for years and followed me to the bar down the street and back again. New faces came and went but I remained. Just in case they felt lonely and wanted to see a familiar face again. I knew everyone by face and name and had their drink on the table before they sat down. It was clockwork. I could do it blindfolded. They were my family in a way. Always greeting me with a smile, talking about life, sports and family. I heard everything back then. I witnessed affairs, engagements, good news and bad news, cancer scares and cancer diagnoses, laughter and tears. Everything. They all came for the same poison.
But it grew stale. I was complacent. Safe and afraid of change. I missed family holidays for my work family and patrons. Work never closes. I wanted out but was too afraid to leave. For years just toiling in anonymity and the comfort that came it. But I wanted better. I remembered my former self years before excited about the future. Potential. All of it. I made up excuses as to why leaving would be bad. They were all awful. And they all worked. The time had come but I needed a reason.
Out of the blue I was offered a career. I hesitated briefly. It was at that time that I first met W. We had our first date. Second date. Third date. For the first time in forever I saw my future come back to me. I wanted better. Demanded it. I wanted to show W that I was for real. I wanted to prove it to myself. So I took the job and a leap of faith and told my boss I was leaving. He was waiting for me. And with W by my side I never looked back. Until now.
I was surrounded by hundreds of people daily. I was everybody`s best friend all because I worked the bar and made their pain go away. I probably opened half a million bottles of beer in my time. Poured tens of thousands of pints of beer. Mixed more cocktails than you could your entire life. And made thousands of house special for the ones I really liked. My patrons. Friends.
I stood partially frozen at the side of the stage. My name was called. I looked left to see my mom in the audience. I stopped in front of the principal and reached for my diploma. I turned my cap and waved and walked into my future. The shortest 45 steps of my life.
This story never happened. Or maybe it did.
From my kitchen to yours,
** This is a tequila based cocktail. It`s a twist on the Tequila Sunrise. Fresh squeezed OJ, lemon juice, grenadine, mint simple syrup, fresh mint, tequila, 2 drops bitters and a tablespoon of Chambord Liqueur. Enjoy.