And sometimes you want to go where nobody knows your name. Sometimes you want a clean slate–not so much to reinvent yourself, but more to reintroduce yourself. After finally closing a door on the guy I always kind of thought I’d end up growing old with, I realized I’d been treading water, marking time, waiting for him to grow up and see that we were meant to be together. But we weren’t, we aren’t, and as hard as it was is for me to admit: we’ve grown up, and into people those wild-eyed high school sweethearts never imagined they’d become. I’d thought I’d shut that door many times, only to find it flung back open again. But all those times shutting the door had been a sad, mournful act. This time was different; it was empowering, and for the first time in my adult life I felt like my own person, finally untethered and free to move in any direction I chose.
Later that week I chose to celebrate some work success by letting loose my new-found freedom with a girls’ night–solo. While I could’ve had a fine time going out on a more traditional girls’ night (you know, with other girls–plural!), being surrounded by people who knew me as I was before my recent epiphany would only enable me to continue my old water-treading ways. I needed to do something bolder, something out of my comfort zone and a little bit scary. Plus, He’s Just Not That Into You had just come out in theaters, a tie-in/spin-off of one of my greatest guilty pleasures–Sex and the City. So I headed out for a SATC-worthy pre-movie snack at one of my favorite chain bar-and-grill restaurants from college.
I walked into the restaurant and found a seat at the bar with the confidence of a woman who’s just solved one of life’s great mysteries. I’d dressed myself that morning in some of my favorite pieces–a shrunken silk knit cardigan in a deep blue shade that accented my eyes and a pair of designer skinny jeans I’d snagged half price to wear tucked into my knee-high black boots I’d purchased on a trip to New Zealand. The look had been designed to be comfortable yet professional, with my hair tied up in a messy knot that skirted the line between runway chic and absent-minded professor. That morning, with pages of notes and charts scattered around my laptop as I gave a powerpoint lecture, the look was spot-on absent-minded; that evening, with a dab of lip gloss and some mascara, I was feeling decidedly more chic.
While I’d come to this restaurant once or twice for a weekend lunch, I’d never come in the evening, nor sat by myself at the bar. However, this chain had been a happy hour favorite of my roommates and I in college, so when I caught the eye of one of the two bartenders on duty, I ordered my old happy hour standard drink and appetizer (making a meal out of half-price happy hour fare turned out to be one of my more useful skills from my undergrad days). When the bartender saw my out-of-state ID, it started a conversation about what brought me so far from home, and before I knew it I was no longer having dinner by myself, I was having dinner with half the people sitting at the bar, and the two bartenders, as well.
When my appetizer came out of the kitchen, the server struggled through the crowded bar area and tried to decide where to deliver the food. “Buffalo wings?” he asked in loud, slightly accented English. The bartender nearest me tried to shout over the noise to the server, but before either he or I could get his attention, another patron took a wing from the platter as he walked by and began chomping on it. The bartender and I met each other with looks of disbelief, then turned to watch the woman take a second wing from the plate as the server was trying to get away.
“I am so sorry,” the bartender offered across the bar. He was trying to be professional and serious, but as soon as we made eye contact we both started laughing. But it wasn’t the awkward laughter that occurs between relative strangers to fill the silence until one of them can think of something to say. Rather, it was the laughter of good friends–the kind that instantly fills your eyes with tears that want to stream down your face but can’t because your cheeks are so taut from grinning that they keep the tears welled up and stinging in the corners of your eyes–the kind of laugh that has everyone around you wondering what they missed, but finally deciding it must be an inside joke, a you-had-to-be-there kind of thing. Just remembering that laughter makes my cheeks hurt.
The bartender insisted on sending to the kitchen for a fresh order for me, and on putting my whole bill on the house to make up for the incident. I accepted the offer of fresh food (not only was my original plate two wings short, the remaining wings had all been touched by the wing-stealer!), but insisted on paying for my drinks at least…especially since I’d now stay for a second while my food was being reordered. We agreed on the compromise, he ordered my wings, refreshed my drink, then stepped around the bar. His shift was over.
He made a round of goodbyes, stopping at each patron at the bar (except the wing-stealer; she’d just been at the bar while waiting on a table). He called each by name and talked to them like they were old friends, making plans with one to watch the game that weekend, offering to help another move on his day off. The woman sitting next to me, also “alone” at the bar, put down her glass of wine and turned to me. “We’re all a bunch of regulars–just good people who like to come in and unwind with a good drink and good conversation. Welcome to Cheers.”
It was then that the bartender made his way around to me. I wasn’t a regular, but he called me by name as he apologized again for the…”incident” with my food. He winked and gave me what may be the most infectious smile I’ve ever seen (a good trait for a bartender, I might add). “Seriously, you should come back again soon–if you want to meet some cool people who can help you get to know your way around town…well, just drop by again. I’m here most evenings, and if I’m not, well, tell them you’re a friend of Jimmy’s.”
And that is how I met The Bartender, on my first night at Cheers.