The lights of the Green Mill marquee are always striking, no matter how many times I see them. The rain has let up to a steady drizzle and the wet streets capture and glisten with every stray beam of color on Broadway. I put out my cigarette as I approach and the doorman, making no attempt to hide the trajectory of his gaze, says that he hopes I’m not here alone tonight. I make it a point not to smile as he hands my ID back to me and say “I hope so too.”
It’s the usual sort of crowd: a socioeconomic bouillabaisse of the upper middle class to the lower upper class, the confident youthful and the middle-aged desperate, all drawn together by their stated love of the saxophone and their more subtextual fetish for golden age thinking. I like this place better than most bars but never on a Saturday night, and never before 2am. I am here because I can no longer go out drinking in my own neighborhood without running into people I have already met and grown tired of. I am here because I only want to see Tom.
I linger for a moment at the doorway, putting my ID back into my purse and taking this last opportunity to feel insecure about my outfit. I scan the room until I spot Tom, tall and lanky, leaning dejectedly against the bar. He has this way of looking exasperated and grumpy at any and all levels of inebriation, and before he notices me come in, he is rubbing the back of his neck and peeling at the label of his beer in a way that also makes him look nervous. I make it a point to move quickly and stealthily, enough that I can get right up behind him without him noticing. I put my hand on the middle of his back, under his arm, just gently, and under my fingers, I can feel all of that tension stored in his detached body language suddenly seize up and give way. I only see his smile for a second before he envelopes me in his arms and presses my face into his chest.
“You scared the shit out of me,” he says. He holds me like that for maybe a second too long to be casual. When he lets go, he stands up and makes it a point to smooth out his shirt and get a little bit of distance between our bodies. “It’s good to see you… Really good, actually.”
“It’s good to see you, too,” I say, wondering if I can convince him to abandon our plans and walk around in the rain with me. There is something weirdly romantic about Tom, not the least of which is his usual willingness to indulge me.
“Bobby is here with his girlfriend and some of her sorority sisters,” Tom says. “They asked if they could come along and I said sure, but we could go somewhere else if you want.”
“No, that’s fine. I like Bobby. And his girlfriend.”
Tom gets me a St. Germaine and soda and leads me over to their table, dropping his hand from my waist as we get closer. There’s a jazz band playing and we’ve got pretty good seats. Bobby stands up to say hello while Tom grabs a chair from a neighboring table so that I can sit down. I scoot over a reasonable distance from Tom, an urge not so much necessary as, I guess, courteous. Tom and I are both dating other people– somewhat casually and newly, yes, but enough so that I feel the need to turn the ringer on my phone off. Bobby is mostly engrossed in trying to get to know his girlfriend’s sorority sisters, with Tom and I politely joining in where appropriate. We behave politely for two full cocktails before turning our attention on eachother, when Tom leans over casually and asks so only I can hear “so, how’s your boyfriend?”
“He’s alright,” I say. “I’m not sure I’d call him a boyfriend yet.”
“Alright? Well, that’s not so bad, I suppose,” Tom says. “It’s better than terrible.”
“It’s better than a lot of things,” I say. “It’s better than just okay. It’s better than I don’t want to talk about it.”
Tom laughs and leans back in his chair. “Yeah, I guess so.”
“How are things with your girl?” I ask. Tom sighs and casts a side look at Bobby and the girls.
“She’s okay,” he says. “She’s pressuring me for a relationship right now. Which I guess is fair, yeah. I like her. We’ve been going out for a while now. But. I don’t know. I don’t have the kind of time that she wants me to spend on her.”
“Well where is she right now?” I ask.
“She’s… gotta get up early tomorrow,” Tom says. “She doesn’t really like things like this anyway. And I kind of feel like I just needed a night to myself for once.”
“I know what you mean.”
“I’m an idiot. I have a really hard time saying no to a girl with pretty eyes,” Tom says, smiling just so. “Like yours.”
Something about the way he says that makes me sad but I smile back just a little before turning my attention away from Tom and back to the stage. I decide it was a mistake coming to see him. I take a sip of my drink and start planning a graceful exit. The band is playing some instrumental version of “You Don’t Know Me,” which strikes me as an attempted appeal at something familiar to the bar’s slowly-in-trickling late night crowd. Tom sees me looking around and signals the waitress.
“Do you want another one?” he asks.
“No, I’m okay. I think I might start going soon. It’s getting late.”
“We just got here,” Tom says. I watch his face as he looks at his cellphone and realizes we’ve been there for an hour.
“One more song,” I say. He nods. The waitress comes over and asks if there’ll be anything else.
“One more round,” he says, slouching dejectedly back into the booth. “Don’t worry, I’ll finish yours if you can’t.”
We watch the bands for a while, now that we’ve made everyone at the table sufficiently uncomfortable. I ask Tom if he likes the band, and he shrugs his shoulders and says that he has a weird relationship with jazz music. I agree.
“It doesn’t feel real to me,” I tell him. “They’re doing a sad song but they’re playing it like they’re happy. Have you ever heard recordings of this song? It’s painfully sad. Soul-crushingly beautifully sad. And there are bands that can play sad songs happy and make it make sense. But this is not that sort of a song.”
“I know what you mean,” Tom says, folding his arms and gazing thoughtfully at the band. “I never know what to make of sincerity in music. Sometimes I feel like maybe I’m just projecting my own, you know, biases and motivations onto them. And there’s no real way of knowing whether or not they’re sincere. They might be really sincere but it just doesn’t sound like that to me.”
“Yeah, that sounds unfair. But I feel like that too sometimes. I feel like that now.”
“Maybe we should stop. You know, just turn off our brains and listen to it. Maybe then we’ll like it.” Tom says.
“You’re right. Let’s try.”
Tom grabs another chair from a neighboring table and pulls it next to mine. I scoot over to make room for him but he pulls my chair closer, then he puts his arm around my shoulders and pulls me closer, resting his head and his body against mine. He closes his eyes. I close mine. I’m fairly certain now that everyone at the table is trying to politely ignore us, but I’m certain too that Tom doesn’t give a shit what they think and I don’t either. I’m focusing all of my energy on the saxophone, and for just one split second, it becomes beautiful, and in just that one brief moment, I feel Tom reach up and put his hand on the side of my face, turn it towards him, and kiss me.
When it’s over, I open my eyes. Tom settles back into his chair with his arms still around me. The waitress brings our drinks and he signs the check. We drink them slowly, but 4am comes as it always does. We leave quietly, tiredly. The rain has stopped temporarily. I have several missed text messages. I delete them all. Tom drives Bobby and the girls back to Bobby’s place and we’re alone again. It’s still very dark and Tom puts on some sleepy Dixieland jazz that I love. We head back to his apartment, where it’s dark and quiet and dry, and there’s a beautiful panoramic window overlooking the lake. I sit down on the futon in front of the window and he sits down next to me, curling up in my arms and yawning, like a child. I rest my head on top of his, and we fall asleep under the cool breezes blowing in through the open window and the water dripping from the leaves outside. I wake up before he does, just after dawn, kiss him on the forehead, and tiptoe out the veranda door, just as mixed up and lonely as I was when I came in.