I’d been going to the same dive bar in Long Beach for more than a decade.
Perhaps that explains why our drinks were so strong.
Or maybe it was because there are numerous pictures of me and other customers hanging on the wall. Or because I used to sing karaoke there every Friday night. Or because my bands used to play there. Or all of the above.
Whatever the case, I didn’t — and don’t — mind a stiff drink. That’s why people become regulars. So the bartenders of the world give us a pinch more than everyone else.
One sip and my date and I looked at each other, shaking our heads in unison, like dogs drying their faces after a bath. We puckered, not for a kiss, but to tell each other that, yes, these vodka sodas were something else.
I felt good, cool. Like I knew people. Like bartenders. Our drinks wouldn’t have been this strong if she ordered. But she didn’t. I did.
I tried to drink slowly. Really, I did. This is why I don’t order mixed drinks. They go down too fast.
She kept pace with me.
“Let’s get another,” she said with a grin. “I’ll buy.”
She was enjoying herself and I didn’t want our night to end. The conversation at dinner had been easy, like we had known each other for years. Just like our Bumble messages and the time we spoke on the phone for three hours.
Facebook said we had eight mutual friends. We had things — and people — in common. Our talk at the bar was no different than dinner. Smooth. Relaxed. Comfortable.
So, sure, let’s get another.
She handed me cash.
Our second round was like the first. Stiff. Through two plastic straws I took a big swig and felt it.
The karaoke was loud. We had to lean into each other to talk over the music. She smiled often, laughed at my jokes. We talked more. We laughed more. I thought to myself, this is a good date.
The right side of her body touched my left. Casual bumping. What do all those books say about what it means when a woman casually touches a man?
She was smart and funny and witty and sexy and interesting. Boxes were being checked. “Go for it,” the booze said.
“Yes, booze, you are right,” I replied in my head.
I leaned to my left.
“I want to tell you something,” I said.
A sideways glance.
“I want to kiss you,” I said.
I thought I knew what I was doing because being coy is how I flirt. I might wear glasses, but I can read signs and I was pretty sure it was a green light. A third-base coach waving me in, telling me not to slide.
I thought she liked me. I thought she wanted me to kiss her.
I thought she’d say yes.
But that slight shift in her body toward me? Gone. She sat straight ahead and looked at her drink.
Something was wrong, but what was that “something”? The easy answer is it was way too soon for a stranger to ask for a kiss. But her demeanor suggested something larger, deeper, more personal.
Or maybe she didn’t like me.
I improvised, tried to recover, to repair the damage I had created, to salvage the date.
Eventually she suggested that I go sing a song. Away from her. I chose one of the few tunes I knew in the book. “Bust a Move” by Young MC. It’s my go-to. From the stage I could see her. She wasn’t amused. Normally I like karaoke because it lets the extrovert out of the introvert. But not this time. I might have been rapping, “Next day’s function / high-class luncheon / food is served and you’re stone-cold munchin’,” but internally I kept thinking, “What just happened?”
I wanted the song to end. We were at a crowded bar, but I wanted to talk about what had just occurred. I wanted to apologize, to tell her I didn’t mean to offend her. I wanted her to know that I was trying to say, “Hey, I kinda like you.”
But I didn’t. Instead, I watched as she finished her drink. I pretended to do the same because I still had to drive. I didn’t want to get drunk.
What I wanted was a last first date. The real thing, whatever that is. Someone with whom I can create a special language only we speak, a woman to text when I see a funny bumper sticker or score a bunch of points in my old man basketball league.
A person. My person.
She could have been my person. Now she was the person calling a rideshare.
I had to go with her because I’d left my car in front of her place. The ride was quiet, tense. We didn’t say anything of substance, but I was ready to erupt. I wanted to tell her how I thought I was being a gentleman, a worldly man circa 2019, and how I thought she was a nice person who made me feel the good kind of nervous. Asking was my way of being flirtatious, but asking was also the right thing to do, right? I’m not a caveman, and I wanted her to know that. I also wanted to know what I had done wrong.
The car dropped us in front of her place and she began walking away. No chitchat goodbye talk. No hug. She was leaving. This was my last chance to explain myself.
“I’m sorry about what I said,” still unaware of what exactly caused her to react so negatively. I might not have known why she was upset, but she was, and for that I was sorry.
I tried to say everything I had been thinking since I asked for a kiss. I fumbled for the right words.
There weren’t any “right words.” And she didn’t owe me an explanation.
So I stopped talking.
The author teaches journalism and English. You can find him on Twitter @ryanlritchie
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