Brian (his real name) and I sit inside at a cafe table. We are in the luxury clubhouse of a football stadium. The team is in the throes of losing their match-up to a lower quality foe. It was raining and cold outside. The indoor, “premiere experience” clubhouse has a seven-foot widescreen and nachos. We’re dragging soggy tortilla chips through the cheese sauce, enjoying being warm and dry.
Through a broad glass entryway, I can see the tens of thousands of crazed fans outside, shouting and waving their arms in the cold rain. But we’re inside where there is a wall to wall fireplace and people say, “sir.” Your nachos are ready, sir.
But really, it’s just an expensive food court with a bar. The home team can’t manage a touchdown so we are mostly enjoying the bar. Right now, it’s the infamous ten-dollar Miller Lites you can only find at sporting and concert venues. Why buy a six-pack when you can have a single can for the same price?
We eventually move on from those to the Bloody Mary bar and load up plastic souvenir mason jars with chunks of pepperoni and cheese and bacon and olives and cauliflower, disregarding flavor and tact and fully succumbing to the seduction of the self-serve relishes spread out before us. I am barely able to slide a final pickle spear into the glass. The pair of drinks is forty dollars. Premium. Experience.
On our second trip, we are sold smaller tumblers, since we already have the big ones. Unsolicited, the cashier winks and says, “I’ll put more liquor in for you” as though I needed it and we pour these into the larger mason jars to make room for the meat and cheese.
The game ends and we say goodbye to the warmth of the clubhouse, venturing outside to mix with the heaving, filthy masses from the upper decks where only foot-long hot dogs and burned fries are served.
We cross the Roberto Clemente Bridge over the Allegheny River and I look back at the stadium, its pale yellowed slabs of seats reaching up into the sky like a titan’s open claw. I watch the fans trickle down its aisles and disappear into the concourse walkways. To any of them who might notice me, I am just a smudge in the rain on a distance bridge. I look out to the confluence of rivers and at the skyscrapers of downtown, then the crowd is pressing us onward.
Just across the river is The Renaissance Hotel, a stately old building rich in history and wealth. We duck past the doormen and grab two Vodka sours from the bartender. Several wedding receptions are being readied in the ballrooms of the second level of the lobby. We find the restrooms then lap around the balcony and an old instinct whispers temptations to me to grab a snack from one of the receptions. An impish tug from adolescence. But I am grown now beyond base impulse, so I move along.
Downstairs, I sit on a high backed sofa and admire the bridesmaids as they pose for endless photos midway up the grand marble staircase. The groomsmen stand awkwardly in pockets along the corners, checking their phones for the game scores.
I tell Brian that the lobby used to be a nightclub with seven bars tucked into nooks and hallways. I danced here one night after pulling an old dead man’s clothes out of the donation bin at the homeless shelter where I worked as a truck driver. They fit, and I owned nothing nicer, and I was in my twenties and wanted to dance. So I arrived wearing this man’s wingtips and dress shirt and slacks. Thank you, whoever you were. Not quite a grave robber, the next day I donated them back, sweaty and rumpled. The second round of vodka sours are made by a different bartender and they are much more sophisticated. We decide a third round is needed to help us better understand the differences.
The wedding receptions upstairs are getting rowdy as the wedding parties enter. The rain has stopped so we leave and march down into the theater district and Brian stops outside the place he used to work, digesting each window poster to learn the line up of shows. He laments openly about how he misses the work, the people, the energy of the evening productions. He’d give it all up, he says, to get back into it.
But he can’t go back, and that’s OK. At heart, we are the things we’ve done and the things we do and the things we want to do. Even if we can’t go back to some place that rings a bell in our heart —and reminiscing on the past can do that — that experience is a part of who we are today.
We move onward, down to the convention center and slide sideways into a bar called the Ten Penny. There’s a group of people inside communicating in sign language, which is brilliant. I can never hear in these places as it is but I’m also graying and my hearing is shot.
We get a round and Brian is gone somewhere, I don’t know where so I open my phone and there is the backlog of texts from my wife asking if I will be home soon. Will I be home for dinner? The kids miss me. Of course, darling, very soon.
I long for my wife and children but more for them to not worry or miss me while I take this brief day to not be so thoroughly among them. Brian comes back from where ever and we have another round before heading out to the place he wants to show me, which turns out to be a bar just next door.
There are two seats right at the counter. It is a taco cantina and I order margaritas. I am explicit that I prefer mine fresh squeezed, none of that horsey jug blend. The bartender complies with a serious nod and vanishes behind a windmill of bottles and oranges. The drink is outstanding so I must have another. Brian compliments the bartender’s beard and we discuss beard oils and lotions, and the best tools for trimming. These are important topics at this time of the late day for men of leisure such as ourselves. Would that my beard was so luxurious that his answers mattered. There is a recommendation of tacos put forth and so I subject myself with immediate consent and then they sit before me, two steaming chicken folds of spicy salsa and lime wedges.
After a moment of contemplation, Brian asks if I remember a classmate of ours from college, and I do. He tells me she has died at forty-six and it brings down onto me a great movement of sorrow and I remember all those many classmates of ours who have already passed away with their life cut short and I wonder at the mystery of it all and the box of our life, within which we are trapped from seeing anything before or after. Somewhere along the mysterious line of time will come my turn. Will I be able to look in from the other side, to care for my loved ones, to push the inertia of goodness towards them and fend off malevolence on their behalf?
I mourn for everything and everyone and then our ride arrives and we say goodbye to the great beard behind the bar and leave as the evening crowd is now bursting to life in town and we climb in and head up over the hills away from downtown. The car drops off Brian and carries me on to my own home, and I arrive to a feast of Italian Steak and hot pepper sandwiches my wife made for our dinner. I eat then go walk the neighbor’s dog and finally help put my children to bed.
I toss and turn all night, so badly that I have to leave the bedroom to not disturb my wife. Thoughts of death and finality torture me, keeping me awake. After the longest while, the sun is rising and still, I am tormented. Everyone else awakens and my family emerges to their morning routines and as I sit on the toilet I can hear my daughter singing a song she learned from the choir. It is so beautiful and her voice so innocent and full of joy and as I sit in humanity’s daily posture of humility with the door ajar listening to the sound of life, I weep.
I weep from exhaustion and from being suddenly overwhelmed with the duality between all the years I spent barhopping and idling through instead of committing to anything specific instead of the empty pursuit for meaning and love and companionship in the wrong places, and now being here, on the toilet, listening to the sounds of the family my wife and I did build in the house we do love with the people we long for and get to embrace each day. My own. My commitments. My responsibilities.
Now I cannot help but reminisce about the past, the unfettered weekends, but I know I would never go back. Because I am not reminded of joy brought from a vocation or any of the things I did in my then unending free time, but of the loneliness and fear from uncertainty and failure to set a course.
I only want more of what I have now, more of my wife and children and our lives together. I am grateful for the depth and length of my handful of friendships with men, like Brian, that we can spend the day together and no matter the activity, really it is about us talking and enjoying each other’s company. In the past, it would have been about the hours and hours of drinking, but now, it’s ten hours of bonding and growing stronger together, and when I come home, I feel stronger there, too. Even if I can’t sleep.
I am not just an indistinguishable smudge on a distant bridge, and I am not trying to escape anything or evade the inevitable question of living even as I know not where I am on that line of time. In the uncontrollable chaos of all of life, at least I can make the decision to commit to building lives with those I love.