David Jester: Obfuscated Glow of Neon Electric

I met you, in that bar, on that storming February night. Out on the street the slush was ankle-deep and the wind howled a fierce icy remembrance of winter’s wrath. I remember little from those times with perfect clarity, the amount of shots and beer we consumed, my excuse for fog of memory, tenebrous scenes, silhouettes of the past lingering in an indolent haze. Those nights steeped in vodka, obfuscated by a whisky miasma, seem so long ago.

It was that little bar, down that side alley off Armitage, the one where the rats would skitter out from the shadows after we walked by, intrepid and fearless as they are. It was that low-slung brick box attached to the back of someone’s brownstone, with the mortar between the red, fire-burnt bricks crumbling in chunks that seemed unsustainable to structural integrity. Light blocks with years of dirt and grime smeared across their once smooth surfaces, were the only source of natural light shading the single room in a waning perpetual dusk. It was still 1950, forty something years later, a neighborhood bar lost in time, still clinging to a simpler past discarded long ago.

We met that night purposefully on accident, the attraction our sheer will for reckless abandon. Cigarette smoke was banked down to the floor. Although it was banned years ago, no one cared, everyone complicit in the indifference. If you stood there long enough and stared through the tobacco haze, the neon signs seemed to quake, while the jukebox in the corner irradiated a phosphorescent luminescence that shined like a lighthouse through a grey blanket of fog. Oh, the way the hot pinks and electric blues lit the room through the thick air, it was electro romance glow.

You saddled up to the bar, finding your spot on the stool next to me. Reaching over for a lighter, you didn’t notice you grabbed the wrong one. I watched you light your cigarette, the cherry end glowing bright as you sucked on a filterless Lucky, puckering your thin lips. You examined the metal on the Zippo and ran your finger over my engraved initials on its tarnished silver surface. I didn’t say anything. I observed out of the corner of my eye, awaiting your next move, all the while sipping on my bourbon. You opened your mouth to say something, but hesitated, as if you were surveying, sizing me up, figuring out whether to apologize and turn away, or use this as a springboard to converse.

I remember the way you held the lighter. You played with it, acting coy, waiting for me to initiate. Sparking the striker wheel you stood it up on the bar, the flame licking high like a burning tongue, flickering and dancing. You flashed a roguish smile and held your palm there, inches away from the flame, to feel the pain and test your mettle. You pulled back, after holding it longer than I would’ve, and sucked air through gritted teeth. I slid my drink to you, told you to hold onto the cold glass of whiskey. You did, and with that smile of yours—the one where you cocked it up to one side as you plotted mischief—drank my bourbon. I ordered us two more. And then two more, and so on, until the night became as fuzzy as the room’s air.

Maybe the whisky obscures the truth of that night, but I like to remember it my way. We fell in love right there. I know. You always chided me for being a hopeless romantic, corny in my own right. We tested the waters, brushing our hands in accidental clumsiness, the warmth radiating off each other burning bright. There was electricity in the simple graze, the soft feel of your fingertips extracted breath from my lungs like the air in the room had been sucked out and replaced with the vacuum of space. Our conversation never waned and we rambled on with excitement, peeling back layers of our lives, discovering what lay hidden beneath our exterior surfaces. And then we departed, stumbling out into the snow.

Outside the flakes cascaded in a diaphanous veil of wintry chill as we walked along that alley side by side. A gossamer mist filled our path as gusts blew spindrift off roofs and danced a wintry waltz before us. We plodded through those clouds of billowy frost with eyes closed, groping blind at our path. I remember how nervous I was in this moment, that I would open my eyes and you’d be gone, that I’d imagined you. I wanted that night to last forever.

There was no spoken plan. All I knew,  we were moving, and I loved it, that impulsive side of yours. Stopping short, we watched a coyote skulking in the shadows across the street. In the orange glow of the streetlamp, the sky now frothing at the mouth in large flakes of precipitation that placed a white veil across our vision, we could see the crystallised breath of this slinking animal go puff, puff, puff. We held the air in our lungs, not in fear, but in amazement, in awe, not wanting to scare it off with our presence. Snow collected on its back, giving it a shimmering arctic coat. After a short while, it trotted away, dissolving into the shadows. We stood there, hand in hand, unaware that we had clasped each other in that moment of tension.

Last week I went by the bar to find it closed, boarded up, the door padlocked, a piece of plywood over the light blocks. The sign that hung over the entryway was removed, the chains dangling listless from the rusted holder. I stood at the door and imagined I could still smell the tobacco smoke from within. In that moment lost in remembrance I tasted your whisky lips again. I tasted the sweat on your neck and felt your hair tickle my cheek as you whispered in my ear.

At the end of the alley, along the sidewalk, I imagined you walk past, your silhouette outlined in that liminal light of day. I ran to the curb to catch you, the sky brilliant in reds and twilight purples and pinks, building rooftops black jagged crooked teeth against the sunset. But you had already passed, gone long ago. Now nothing but ethereal wisps of memory dissolving along with the sun’s dying light.

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