People We Learned to Love in Books

by Matthew Grolemund

After meeting to find neither of us far from the other’s expectations,
going through the trite business of what we do, our interests, daydreams,
books we love, testing the waters of a joke for a smile and
finding one, each of us sensing some connection as the server takes
the wine glasses and sets down the first round of cheap beers and
we toast to those who brought us here, your hand finds mine in the
pocket of my coat as we slide down an icy sidewalk to a bar you’ve
read about, and inside it is also not far from our expectations, lots of
people listening to loud music so I have to lean in to tell you things
you pretend you hear to save me repeating, and then I lean away just
a moment to cover a cough and in the time it takes me to turn, it happens—
in walks the most handsome man you’ve ever seen, a Greek
statue come to life, and he’s looking right at you the whole time, like
he knows you or wants to, and for a moment you know this is the
man you’ve always wanted, that you’re done waiting, done praying,
done pretending you can actually understand small talk from strangers
in loud bars because we’ve both reached the age where it’s time to
stop fantasizing.

Of course this is foolish, and you try to hide it, but I’ve seen from
the sidelines, recognized it like a line in a book I could have written

See, up till now the unspoken word has been “settle”—both of us
desperate to meet someone before turning thirty, halfway to death
or the nursing home as we both hear from our parents, who remind
us that to grow up is to stop waiting for the people we learned to love
in books.

Now our drinks are empty and the music stops and in the time
before the next song I ask what you’d like to do, but you look past me
once more and see he’s here with a group, some young girl hanging
from his shoulders, much younger than you or at least she looks it,
but she could be anyone—she wears rings but none look real from
far away and besides, who marries so young these days?—and I’m
waiting, kindly, and you ask if we could stay for one more and I agree
kindly and you suspect that I treat all women kindly, like my mother
raised me right and I’m exactly the type of guy you always tell your
friends you’re ready for, the type of guy who probably wants kids and
would treat them kindly and your parents kindly as well, the type
the most blissful of your friends have found, the type who asks the
bartender to make your drinks weak because he wants you to feel like
yourself in the morning.

You think this about me and you might be right, but that other
man is dragging himself away from his group and walking over to
us, pushes to the bar on your other side holding a twenty-dollar bill
folded the long way as though the bartenders were strippers, then
looks to you and smiles, a smile straight from a movie, a smile you
knew was waiting out there all those times you were somewhere
close to content, held back by an ex’s drunken ex, another’s need to
be healed, another’s constant attempts to become exactly what you
need, as if you knew what that was then, now, or what it will be years
from now when you’ve settled for someone good, maybe even me,
but not good enough to stop wondering if your mother was right
when she said the only alternative to settling is to wait like a fool for
what only exists in books.

The bartender brings our drinks and I slide you yours. You look
surprised, like you forgot I was there. Then the bartender leans to the
other man to hear his order over the music and you try to hear what
it is, can only figure out that he’s ordering for more than one, the four
fingers he holds up and the glance back to his friends giving it away,
and then he’s off with four cheap beers as you turn to me and ask if
I would like to head out to the patio for a smoke because, like you, I
smoke only when I’m drinking or nervous and even more when I’m
both, and you know this guy and what he represents just arrived and
won’t be leaving anytime soon.

Then we run into our mutual friend, the one we found out we
shared a few weeks back when I first messaged you, and a patio table
opens and the waitress brings yet another round until we’ve spent
an hour hearing stories of our wild years, each of us filling in gaps,
making them more like we like to remember, laughing ourselves near
tears only to end with a sip of our drink and a silence. And when the
friend excuses herself and it’s time to leave, there’s no reason to go
back in and give your fantasy one last look unless, you think, you lie
and say you have to use the bathroom.

So I ask if you have to use the bathroom while I find us a cab, see
the moment’s pause that could mean anything or nothing, could
mean everything or nothing, the one I still can’t read.

No, you say, you’re fine, in fact better than fine, as you’ve just
reached the point where those damn heels, the ones you love but
always regret wearing, don’t seem a bother anymore, the muscles in
your feet finally gone numb from all the long, calculated steps you’ve
taken. Then you take a few more and you’re here, arms around my
waist, lips to mine in a move you might have saved, might have borrowed
from some other time.

Then you suggest we wander a little further down the line, see
what else we find.