Every major metropolitan city in the U.S. has a West Allis. Fortunately for those of us living in the Milwaukee area ours is actually called West Allis. You’ll know you’ve reached your own West Allis when you find yourself surrounded by blue collar Mexican restaurants that serve polish sausage and french fries, no-cover bars with $1.50 tappers, brick paired with warped vinyl siding, and the wrong amount of street parking whatever the occasion.
I visited ours this evening to bid farewell to a friend who’s chosen to shuffle off this West Allisian coil for the damper climes of Seattle. A group of us met him for drinks at Benno’s Genuine Bar & Grill, a 30-tap townie bar with friendly staff, ample seating, reasonable prices, and after a few hours a girl suddenly resting her head on the bar, weeping her eyes out, sitting all alone.
“Sweet merciful Jesus what cloying diva hell has descended upon us?” I wondered. But not in quite so many words on account of the volume of the jukebox had me a little frazzled. It probably went something more like “#*@&%. Now what?” The causes of all the tears I’ve seen at bars have rarely elevated their validity above such a response. But then I figured folks don’t cry that hard when things don’t hurt. And even if a cause is unreasonable it doesn’t mean the pain’s not real, right? Right.
So I walked over to her. Sat down on the stool to her left. Leaned in to talk through the hair covering her face. God was she crying. Even over the thumping twang of the jukebox her sobs burbled up loud enough to name themselves.
“Hey honey. What’s’a matter? You doing okay?”
Unintelligible mumbling escaped the curtain of her hair, followed by a “…no…” and more sobbing, this time with a key change.
I put my left hand on her forearm, my right on her shoulder. Rub, rub, rub. “C’mere honey. It’s gonna be all right. What’s going on, huh? You want to talk about it? We don’t have to, but I’m here, you know, if you want to.”
A pause in the tears, a mumble of something akin to “I’unno,” then a return to weeping.
Causes may be unreasonable, but pain is still painful, and sadness has a keen way with conjuring friends from strangers.
“Can I at least get you a water or…” I hesitated. I don’t like to see people drinking when they’re upset. But I forged ahead anyway. “Or a drink? Can I get you a drink?”
If you wink and nod, and then make pinch-y fingers toward the glass, the bartender’ll make the drink weak. I can wink, nod, and make pinch-y fingers. One Sprite, please; on the rocks.
“Yeah. Yeah a drink,” she coughed out. Finally– she speaks! “But just shots,” she yelled to the floor. “I’m only doing shots tonight. I just want to black out. Tonight I just want to forget everything.”
What have I walked into what have I walked into what have I walked…
“Aw no, honey. Not tonight! You don’t want to forget tonight!” I cheered. “We’re gonna have a nice time you and me, and you’re gonna want to remember it! Let me get us some waters, huh?” No reply. I tried again. “So what is it then,” I asked. “Is it a guy?”
It was like my question cut all her strings.
Pain is painful.
And it all poured out.
“I just got a call,” she whispered. “Fifteen minutes ago. I just got a call.” A pause. “It’s my best friend J—-. He killed himself today.”
Her face was still down, her forehead resting in her hands on the bar. I closed my eyes and prayed something like “Oh… God.” I mean, what else do you say? I may’ve also asked for help in not saying something stupid, but I’m sure that part was also fairly short and elliptical.
“Honey,” I whispered at the curls shaking on the side of her head, “I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry.” I put my arm around her shoulders and squeezed. “Honey…”
“It was over a girl. His girlfriend. She broke up with him a few days ago and he couldn’t handle it.” Shuddering, sniffling, and then a hand drawn sloppily across smeared, wet eyes. There was not a line left on her person that remained defined.
She turned, giving me her face, tears, and story without a hint of her former reluctance. It started with a McDonald’s bill of $21.17. That was how much he spent on food the last time she saw him. She’s from out of town. Mumble-apolis. She last saw him seven months ago. He was in jail, then prison, for DUIs. He was finally out. They went out to a bar, then stopped at McDonald’s on the way back to her house. He got an Angus burger, a large Coke, a large Diet Coke (she has a large Diet Coke, no ice, every day), four McChickens with Mac sauce, a few other random items, and fries.
“$21.17!” she laughed. “Can you believe it?! He was so beautiful. So fucking beautiful. And he just ate and ate and ate. I finally went to bed and when I got up around 4 to go to the bathroom he was laying there asleep on the couch with half a McChicken hanging out of his mouth!” She roared like this was the funniest damned thing in the world, so I laughed too.
“$21.17?!” I sputtered. “That’s crazy!”
“I know, right?!”
“He sounds pretty great.” I smiled. Rub, rub, rub.
“Yeah, he was.”
“So tell me about him, girl! What was he like?”
“He was my Best. Friend!” she gushed. “Like, okay: We went to a bar once and these haters were there and when I came out of the bathroom after we’d only been there like 15 minutes, they were like to him ‘Wait, you’re here with her?’ and he was all like ‘We’re leaving. Now.’ And I was like, whatever, you know, because I know I have a big ass so I don’t even listen to that noise so let ’em talk!” She laughed. “But he was all like ‘No. We’re leaving. Now.’ He was always so good to me like that. He called me beautiful. He was so beautiful. He was just 25.” Still laughing. Cackling, almost. “His girlfriend was beautiful too. Like, super beautiful and everything. But he was gorgeous. And then she left him. Dumped him on Facebook. Can you believe it? Facebook?”
I nodded. Facebook.
“And he told her a few days ago he was going to kill himself, you know?” Still laughing, somehow, but wildly now, and with tears. “And he told her, and she didn’t go over there. She didn’t even go! He told her and that [impressive but forgettable series of expletives] didn’t even go to see him and now he’s dead!” The wildness turned desperate.
“Oh honey…” Rub, rub, rub.
“It’s her fault. It’s all her fault. He was a good guy. He had a good family. Like, his parents are still together, you know? They had three daughters after him. They’re 9, 7, and 3. They’re so pretty. And now he’s gone, and it’s that [similarly impressive string]’s fault! I would give anything if they could have resuscitated him! Anything! But that would only be the best thing for me. Not for her. Not for her.”
A loop of curses, flashing blue. A cry of pain. Her face returned to its hideaway in her hands.
I don’t remember what I said then. It couldn’t have been very good. It couldn’t have been very much. I’ve never experienced something like that myself. And even if I had, so what? What is my pain to you? It’s a mist to your rain, a suggestion to your thundering reality. What would it matter that I had ever suffered then when here you are suffering now?
I curled my arm through hers and we sat there in silence for several minutes, her tears eventually flattening out to match the beer taps, the paper napkins, the wood paneled decor. I asked if she needed a ride, if I could take her anywhere, if she needed to just get out. No, she told me. She has a ride. Her boyfriend is here.
I’m sorry–did I hear that right? Your what is here and you’re crying alone? He hasn’t walked you out to the car? Held your hand? Taken you home to cry and talk this out?
But I didn’t ask these things. I held my tongue. Angels must’ve been runnin’ them some mad interference.
“I think I’m ready to tell him I want to go home,” she mumbled, and rose from her stool. She found her boyfriend in the corner, was roundly ignored by him, shook off her tears, and donned armor of solid Brash. The last thing she said to me that night was a lyric from a hip-hop song on her way out the door. Something about being a bitch and having a big ass. Her group stumbled out into the cold and she was gone.
Oh honey… your mascara.
I wish I could fix it.
“Ho! Ho! Ho! To the bottle I go
To heal my heart and drown my woe.
Rain may fall, and wind may blow,
And many miles be still to go,
But under a tall tree will I lie
And let the clouds go sailing by.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien