September in San Francisco made Nora weep with its loveliness. Vertical hills rushed up to meet the eye and cloudless sky, plunged down to the Pacific. Pastel Victorian buildings glistened against the deepening azure. In the blossoming parks, couples drifted behind clusters of rhododendron. Oh, it was worse than spring. The Kodachrome light of sunrise made her bones ache, her heart and stomach. She yearned for the fog of summer, for the heavy grey skies to enshroud the peninsula, calling for sweaters and jackets, layer upon layer to keep her body protected. On Saturday morning she looked down from her apartment at the families strolling the sidewalks, and at the flower stand, a pregnant woman buying yellow chrysanthemums. Nora stood at the window with her lips pressed to the glass like a child outside a Christmas display and decided she needed a drink. It had been eleven months.
The Piano Man ordered mineral water; Nora asked for house red. He huffed while she sniffed the wine, shrugged, and tilted her head back to swallow all of it.
“You buying, I’m flying,” she said, smiling with effort, the faint aroma of smoke in the sunlit bar mingling with the smell of her sweat; she thought she might float away in the sudden onslaught of perspiration. Luckily, she had worn black.
“Those aren’t my own words,” she said. The cabernet instantly soured her mouth, made her cringe at the sound of her voice.
“I mean, I didn’t originate that line. It’s some hick bar come-on I heard once in Oregon.” At times like these, Nora desperately wished she could smoke cigarettes, but even one puff could start her hacking. “Anyway, it’s not true. I have plenty of money. No need to worry.” She couldn’t tell if the Piano Man was listening. He was a dark, balding fellow who looked as if he’d been squeezed through a tube. He wore a black suit with a fuchsia shirt and skinny leather tie. His pencil-thin fingers tapped a baseline on the mahogany bar; Brubeck buzzed on the stereo.
“Here,” she said, digging a veiny hand deep into her purse and emerging with a twenty-dollar bill whose surface reminded her of the fuzzy patina on the moss-covered trees outside her childhood home near Portland. You could touch the firs from the deck, their trunks nuzzling Nora’s pudgy hands, her mother drinking spiked iced tea from a crystal tumbler on a rare sunny afternoon, the last of the morning showers still misting the air.
“Here,” she repeated, pushing the bill so far in the Piano Man’s direction that she could no longer reach it with her carmine fingernails, which were painted to keep them out of her mouth.
“Buy yourself something. I’ll have another cabernet. No. Wait. What was the name of that green drink I always wanted to try?”
The Piano Man frowned, lifting the bill by its edges, and tucked it back into Nora’s cavernous bag.
“Sweet Nora,” he began, then removed a pressed handkerchief from his pocket and blotted his thin lips before continuing. “You’re thinking of absinthe, what all those Parisian artists used to drink. Absinthe. Sounds like absence, which is a good metaphor…”
“Oh, please don’t do the lecture.” Nora looked away, past the handful of natty patrons to the sun angling off the waters of the bay, the blue brilliance of the day muted by the dark tinted windows of the bar. Alcatraz was a smudge in an otherwise dazzling view, the defunct prison now a tourist attraction.
The Piano Man, who was called Frank by the bartender, ordered another mineral water for himself and an iced coffee for Nora.
“Forgive me. I just hate to see you go back. You’ve done so well, Nora. All because you had one doesn’t mean you have to go the whole route.”
“Why is it you always talk about drinking like it’s some place you once visited, or the ghetto of your youth that you’re too good for now.” She closed her eyes and added, “but all your roots are there, and not everyone’s moved uptown.” Nora sniffed the iced coffee and shook her head. Raising her empty wine glass to the bartender, she mouthed, “Refill?”
The young man looked at Frank expectantly.
“I’m not the boss,” Frank said. “She’s her own boss.”
“Well. Thanks for being so egalitarian.” She smoothed her thick blond hair away from her forehead and checked her reflection in the mirror behind the bar. Miraculously, she was still thin. One glass of wine hadn’t transformed her back into the fat drunk of last year. Of her entire life, she corrected herself. “Alcoholism is not a metaphor. Drunk is just drunk.”
“Nora, I said I’d keep you company because I’m a fellow traveller, but don’t make fun of the way I talk, okay?”
“I apologize.” She looked into her lap, folding her hands together as if she were a child in church.
“Besides, you’re a recovering drunk. Always recovering, but never recovered.” She pushed the fresh glass of wine down the bar and out of her reach. Nora closed her eyes, and the bartender made it vanish. Shivering, she wished she’d worn more than the short-sleeved dress. But if she couldn’t drink, and she couldn’t eat for pleasure, then she had better get something for all her denial; men’s admiring looks made her feel good, but they didn’t do the job half as well as a few drinks.
Frank took off his jacket and draped it over Nora’s bowed shoulders. He looked humble and kind. She was glad she had come to him after all.
“I get tired of egalitarianism though.” She swallowed some iced coffee and grimaced. “Does that bartender have a girlfriend, do you know?”
Frank “Sorry, I don’t want to rush you. Why don’t you sit at the table next to my bench? We did that once before, didn’t we?”
Blinking away tears, Nora made out the grand piano by the high windows, the blue bay waters reaching effortlessly to the horizon, elongated trapezoids of sunlight reaching into the room to illuminate helices of cigarette smoke. Moroccan arabesques wove elaborate palmettes across the carpet. One tear escaped which she failed to hide from Frank, who came immediately to her rescue with his immaculate white handkerchief.
“I do get tired of egalitarianism though,” Nora insisted, locking her hands around the glass. “I’m thirty-five years old, and no one’s ever taken care of me.” She tapped Frank’s wedding band with her forefinger. “This ring,” she swallowed. “Your ring makes me disgustingly maudlin.”
“It’s okay, Nora. You’re not drunk.”
“Not drunk or not a drunk?”
“Always the editor. Stop being so hard on yourself.”
For the first time that morning, Nora let her eyes meet Frank’s, which were a deep, welcoming brown. In spite of his hipster facade, he was good, Nora thought. He did care for her. Even today.
“Oh, why didn’t I nab you back in the good old days when we drank at the same dives?” She half-smiled. “Or why didn’t you nab me? It could have been like wine and roses. Remember the movie? We could have self-destructed together in conjugal bliss. Instead, you find this terrific woman to help you quit and get your life in order, and now you’re out in the suburbs, and soon little Frank or Frankette will be banging those ivories alongside you.” She meant to sound happy for him, but she was jealous. Frank’s wife did not drink but came from a long line of drinkers. Everyone agreed that women with alcoholic fathers often gravitated toward drunks. When Nora was twelve, her father took her mother on a swan dive in the family station wagon deep into the Columbia River. Nora didn’t gravitate toward anyone. But she wanted to.
Frank cleared his throat. “Ruth didn’t ‘help’ me quit. No one helps. Either you do it alone, or… ”
“Enough with the party line already!”
“It’s important to me, Nora.”
“I’m sorry. It’s just,” she looked around the bar and out the windows. “Just days like today. When it’s cold and grey I can handle it. I bundle up and read or go to a movie or a cafe. And you know that everyone else is only trying to get through the day. But when the weather’s like this, and people act so content just walking down the street.” She pointed to the tourists on the promenade, couples hand in hand, families with strollers. One pregnant woman alone, striding down the sidewalk, arms swinging with purpose.
“What makes you think they’re happy? I bet those two haven’t slept together for years,” Frank said, indicating a couple who maintained a five-foot gap between them. “It looks pretty out there, but you’re assuming. You’re too smart for that.”
“I’m too smart to be saying such stupid things, you mean.”
“Stop accusing me.”
“Sorry.” Nora flattened her elbows on the bar and propped her chin on her stacked fists. “I’m having a hard day.”
“I know, Nora. I’m right here.” He pushed her hair back over her shoulders, but it was a half-inch too short to stay there, so it fell forward again, covering her pale face. “Look at you,” he whispered. “Ever since you lost all that weight, you remind me of Garbo. You should be proud of yourself for all you’ve accomplished in the last year, but you insist on putting yourself down.” Frank checked his watch. “I’ve got to play. Don’t go.”
“I shouldn’t be hanging around here. Ruth wouldn’t like it. If I were Ruth, I wouldn’t like it. Did you ever tell her we slept together all those years ago? Not that I remember it. The sex I mean. I’m sure I was perfectly disgusting.”
Frank kissed her forehead. “I told her, and she’s fine with it. You were not disgusting. Perfectly or otherwise. You were lovely.”
“You’re sweet, Frank, but my enormous body crowding your bed couldn’t have been a pretty sight.”
“Stop it! I’ll play for forty-five, then we can get lunch.”
“Here.” Nora removed his jacket and brushed at the lapels, picking off a long blond strand of hair. “You’ll need this.”
When he put on his jacket, he stepped into his musician persona: the supercool, well-practiced aloofness clamping over him like a bell jar. No wonder he had to drink his way out from under it. Used to have to, Nora reminded herself. He winked at her before beginning ‘Blue Rondo à la Turk’ with a snap of his fingers.
She didn’t believe what he said about their one-night stand, three years back, after meeting in a downtown bar and getting obliterated. She was trying to freelance feature stories on the jazz scene and convinced herself that drinking was part of the journalist’s job the way it was part of the musician’s music: tormented and talented people self-destructing. Jazz players did drugs as well; at least she didn’t, but it was all so much stereotype. She liked the image of herself at the bar with a drink and her pad of paper, a pencil poised; she lacked only a cigarette. All those nights where her notes degenerated into scribble. She had let herself out of Frank’s apartment that morning without a glimmer of memory. She hadn’t remembered his name, then, only that he played the piano. She never told him she’d gotten pregnant.
“Excuse me,” she called to the bartender, an athletic type who reminded her of surfer movies where boys had crewcuts and vacuous blue eyes. “Do you have something hot and non-alcoholic but not coffee?”
“Tea. With cream and sugar, it tastes like dessert. My English grandma got me hooked.” He smiled; Nora thought even his teeth looked athletic. But he was being nice, and she tried hard not to judge him.
“That sounds good, thanks.”
From the other end of the bar he called, “Why don’t you move down here? The sun’s coming in. You look kind of cold.”
Nora collected her purse and relocated. The rays of the sun instantly soothed her, caressing her back like a pair of gentle hands. Frank was playing that tiresome song from Casablanca ‘…You must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss…’ Some farmer from Iowa had probably requested it, Nora thought with irritation. The Piano Bar Pier had been remodeled to resemble Bogart’s place in the movie. Drinks were five bucks a shot, but she supposed they paid Frank a decent salary. It was a hell of a lot nicer than that other bar, The Palette, where Frank was playing for tips when they met.
Nora had met a number of hazily familiar faces at the various AA meetings she attended all over the city. San Francisco was, as the cliché went, a surprisingly small town. More than once she’d heard a voice, a hacking bout of laughter which vaguely recalled some half-interred, intoxicated memory; barroom buddies and last-call providers, the generous friendship of 2 a.m. drunks. But Frank was the only ex-lover she’d run into, ex-something, anyway. Father of one of her three aborted children. Nora hated to think about it. The inevitable result of a blacked-out fuck, of a night which fell without fail in the middle of her menstrual cycle when she could not bear one more night alone and so ended up smashed with a stranger and no contraception (or her diaphragm buried in her purse, forgotten), and her friends could never get over Nora’s relentless fertility.
Not anymore though, she supposed. The doctor told her she had so much scarring on her cervix that he doubted she could get pregnant again. But use a condom, he’d said; he had attended Nora more than once.
Still, she might not be infertile; that’s what she’d thought after the second time. Nora surveyed the young bartender, judging him a good specimen for fatherhood. Not the commitment, just the act of sperm donation. He was nice to look at, and friendly. Often Nora ached for a child, to be able to love without embarrassment. It wasn’t the biological clock’s last ticks so much as the prolonged solitude, the calendar leaves ripped from the wall of her ‘bachelor’s’ studio for the last ten years. She asked the bartender the date, and, not surprisingly, it was the middle of her cycle. She laughed at herself for being so predictable, drunk or sober. There was nothing terribly wrong with her; she was just lonely.
“You’re an old friend of Frank’s, huh.” The bartender began to dust the gleaming bottles at Nora’s end of the bar. “He’s a wonderful pianist; outclasses anyone I’ve heard for a long time. Makes my job a pleasure.”
“Yes. He’s good, isn’t he.” They stopped to listen as Frank plunged through a complicated Brubeck riff; Nora’s spine tingled. “I think he said something about recording. Did he mention that to you?”
“No. No he didn’t. I’m Stuart, by the way.”
“Nora. Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you,” he said, stressing the last word. They shook hands, Nora remembering to use the firm grip she liked in others. He kept smiling, and Nora decided she’d been mean about his teeth. Looking around the room, she concluded that he was talking to her because she was the only woman there under fifty.
“Let me get you another,” he offered, and when she protested, he said, “Please. It’s on me.”
“Thanks. It’s very good.” And it was. How bizarre to be drinking tea in the morning at a jazz bar, flirting with a bartender while perfectly sober. The one glass of wine had made her head ache, but otherwise she felt as she had that morning, looking down at the woman with her chrysanthemums. She wondered how old the bartender was: twenty-five? thirty? He might be one of those men who went through life perpetually looking like a boy. No lines around his eyes like there were around hers. But his hair was so light it could almost be a white-grey. Perhaps. She couldn’t quite dismiss him, nor could she accept his attention as ingenuous. Still, she liked him for praising Frank, using wonderful, not great or fabulous or terrific. He didn’t act like a drunk; there was no counterfeit coffee mug beneath the bar. She’d been watching for it.
“Can I buy you a drink?” she asked.
“I never met a bartender who didn’t drink. Unless he was reformed, as they say.”
Stuart laughed. “Reformed always sounds like something criminals are supposed to be after society gets through with them. As in reform school.” He ran a hand through his bristly hair, and Nora wondered what it would feel like, if his razor cut would prickle or nuzzle her fingertips. “I’m not a drinker, if you know what I mean.”
Nora said she did.
“I like bars though. I like watching what goes on in a bar. I’m…” he hesitated, as if embarrassed, “I’m trying to make films. Well, one film right now. Excuse me a minute.” He left to serve a couple in rugby shirts at the opposite end of the bar. She liked his slow, easy walk, the polite but reserved tone in which he spoke to the tourists. He didn’t appear to be a phony, but she was reserving final judgment.
“Stuart’s a very nice man, Nora,” Frank whispered; he had stopped playing without her noticing. “You could do a lot worse than a guy like Stuart.”
“Am I that obvious?” she asked, flushing.
Frank began to tell her what he knew about Stuart, but Nora wasn’t listening. She sipped her tea and watched Stuart serving his customers; once, he turned back to smile her way. She felt something in her bones and stomach, something closer to anticipation than to the desperation which had opened her day. Something like pleasure.