Erica the bartender leaned in and whispered, “Are you okay, Frank?”
Frank was sitting at the far end of the bar, his beer glass half empty, reading an E.L. Doctorow short story in the summer fiction issue of the New Yorker. It was about a teenage boy whose father died, and that was all it took. Frank was bawling, the tears dripping onto the magazine and onto the bar.
Erica moved the napkin dispenser in front of him, in lieu of tissues. This wasn’t the first time she’d seen him cry.
“I’m okay, Erica, thanks.” He pointed to the magazine. “This story just got to me. That’s all.” He mustered a weak smile.
Erica floated away to attend to the other drinkers. Frank watched her effortlessly charm two men in jackets and ties who just sat down. He heard some giggling behind him, and turned to see a couple unsuccessfully trying to hide that they were laughing at him. He saw on the back wall behind them the political and punk rock posters that Ryan the bar owner juxtaposed to comic effect. The Dead Kennedys next to an actual dead Kennedy, the Violent Femmes alongside Reagan on horseback. He almost laughed himself.
But he knew why they were laughing, and it wasn’t the decor. A grown man, a fifty-something grown man crying in public was something to laugh at in this fucked up world. Ever since Julie’s death – now almost exactly a year ago – he seemed to be crying at everything. Songs on the radio, impassioned speeches by neighborhood activists, everyday examples of courage, accomplishment, compassion, even the simple beauty of a bright blue sky. If it had any emotional content whatsoever – happy, sad, funny, sentimental, inspiring – he would cry. He had a confusing mix of embarrassment and pride at his public behavior. Pride because it meant he was a feeling person, an enlightened male. Embarrassment because he lived in the world as it is, with people as they are.
The couple went back to their conversation, and Frank considered confronting them. He wanted to say, “Is there a problem? Never seen a grown man cry?” He directed his ire at the man. Fuck you, he thought, I’ll bet if your wife died, you’d just laugh it off, remarry within weeks, and continue to be an asshole. He said none of this.
He tossed a twenty on the bar, knowing he was over-tipping by a lot, and waved to Erica as he prepared to leave. She was chatting up a gaggle of college girls but still managed to nod to him and smile, then motion to the laughing couple and roll her eyes. Frank was impressed again with Erica’s casual mastery of the bar, seeing and hearing everything while managing the next dozen drink orders. He stood, took a few steps to walk off the stiffness in his knees, and went out the door to the street. He pulled his phone from the pocket of his jeans and called Lynn, Julie’s great and longtime friend who Frank always thought of as her best gift to him. She picked up after one ring.
“Hi Frank!” she chirped, caller ID removing all mystery from incoming calls. “What’s up?”
“Another crying jag,” he said. He and Lynn had talked about this before. “Over a short story. In a bar. In public! People started to laugh. Pathetic!”
“Fuck them, Frank. They probably hold in their tears and get cancer from it.” Not funny, Frank thought.
“Funny,” he said.
“Come on, Frank, we’ve been through this. You’re a sob sister, plain and simple. And it’s not just about Julie. Wait a minute; isn’t it one year this week? Next week? Anyway… you were a crier when I first met you. Remember that night at the movies? That stupid rom-com. You couldn’t stop. We all laughed at you then, and you didn’t seem to mind.”
“Yes, I did,” Frank said from behind a big smile. He wasn’t sure if Lynn knew he was kidding.
“Look Frank, I was about to go out for a drink. You wanna meet me at the Pour House?”
Frank looked at his watch. Nine-thirty. “Sure. Twenty minutes?”
Frank walked five blocks down and two blocks over to the other bar. He scanned the dark room and didn’t see Lynn but found an empty barstool and, despite the crowd, was able to order a drink right away. I never come here, he thought, but Lynn and Julie used to meet here all the time for their “strategy sessions,” as they both called it, figuring out what they were each going to do next in lives that they flattered themselves to think of as complicated. He met them here once, but only once.
A tap on the shoulder. Frank turned and it was Lynn. Her hair was pulled into a ponytail, and she was in jeans and a green satin-y blouse that made her look dressed up. They hugged.
“Thanks for meeting me,” she said. “This way I don’t have to chat up some horny stranger I’ll never see again.” She smiled in small self-satisfaction at her own joke.
“Sure, and after a few more drinks, I’ll probably just break into another crying fit. I wonder if it’s been worse lately because it’s a year since Julie …,” his voice trailed off.
“I know,” said Lynn. “I thought about it last week when it was coming up, but I forgot about it until you called. Wait, it’s not today, is it?”
“Yesterday. You know, when I think about her, it’s like thinking about ten different people. The artist – the wildly compulsive artist, she couldn’t wrap a birthday present without making it some grand art project – the alcoholic, the shopaholic, the loyal friend, the momma’s girl, the blues fanatic. It was like living with Sybil!”
“She certainly was complicated,” Lynn said. “But she was also your lover and your wife; don’t forget that.”
Frank wanted to forget that. He and Julie hadn’t had sex in months, probably the better part of a year or more, even before she got sick. “I almost remember that,” he said, a veiled and half-hearted confession about the premature end of their sexual relationship, but also trying to make it sound like he was only talking about since her death. Trying to juggle these nuances of lamentation, he only mangled them, sounding awkward and nervous.
Over Lynn’s shoulder, he saw Bob come into the bar. Fucking Bob. Julie’s big fling, the year-long affair that should have broken them up, the endless lying, the secret spending that ruined their finances, the late nights of too tired or not feeling well which then meant early to bed with barely a kiss. But then she got sick, and made her deathbed confession about Bob, about fucking Fucking Bob, and then she died, leaving him to die a little with her.
Bob had his arm around a much younger woman. He was in a sport coat and dress shirt open at the neck with no tie, and she in a sleeveless print dress. Another affair? Frank wondered. Who was the lucky guy this time?
Frank recognized Bob because a friend had pointed him out about a month after Julie died, but they never actually met, so Bob wouldn’t know him. Bob saw Lynn and nodded hello. Frank saw her make quick eye contact, then turn away.
“Do you know him?”
“Who?” said Lynn, a little too sheepishly to sound even slightly sincere. Frank gave her an incredulous look.
“Oh, you mean Bob Cheatham? Yeah, he was a friend of Julie’s. You knew him too, right?”
Frank felt a hot rage. “No I did not! I didn’t even know he existed until the very end. Did you also know about their affair?” Lynn looked down at her feet. “Are you fucking kidding me, Lynn? I mean, really?!”
“Come on, Frank. It was a long time ago. I never said anything because, you know, kill the messenger.”
“I should kill you now, you fucking ….,” he couldn’t think of an insult that fit. He wanted to convey “I love you as an important friend but this is an unforgiveable betrayal.” He felt his eyes start to well up.
“I’m sorry, Frank. It was a no-win situation then and it’s no-win now. Can we please get a drink and talk about something else? Wait, are you crying?”
Frank was wiping his eyes. His voice cracked. “Julie’s confession was one of the last things she said to me. From her hospital bed! Why did she do that? It was horrible! And I held onto it, I didn’t want to tell anyone, including you – especially you – for her sake, to preserve her good name, her memory. What an idiot.” His face was wet with tears. “But once she was gone, knowing what I knew, I was actually relieved. Betrayed of course, by her and now I find out by my quote-unquote friends, and oblivious and worthless and adrift and destroyed. But mostly relieved.”
“I don’t know what to say, Frank. I’m really sorry, about all of it.”
Frank’s mind was racing, searching for something to say, or do. He felt himself coming apart. “Why don’t you introduce me to your friend. I’m sure he’d get great satisfaction out of meeting the cuckold.” He grabbed Lynn by the wrist and began to drag her toward Bob and his date. She resisted at first but decided to go along, let him have his moment, whatever it was going to be.
“Hi, Lynn,” Bob said as they approached. “Good to see you again, here at the scene of the crime.” He smiled and Lynn winced. That was all Frank needed.
“Hi Bob. I’m Frank. I was Julie Logan’s husband. Remember her?” Bob looked at Lynn with a puzzled expression that also betrayed a hint of panic. Frank motioned to the date. “Is she married too?” He turned to the woman, who up close looked even younger than he first thought, probably not even twenty-five. “Are you married? Bob here likes the married ones; don’t you, Bob? You must lure ’em away with your huge dick. I always wanted to get a load of that bad boy for myself.”
“That’s enough, Frank,” Lynn protested, but it was too late. Frank grabbed Bob by the balls and squeezed as hard as he could. Bob let out a muffled cry and fell to his knees. As he went down, Frank swung his free hand and hit Bob hard in the face with the heel of his fist. Bob fell over, whimpering. The date was too stunned to speak.
“Thanks, Lynn,” Frank said loudly as if he was talking to the whole bar. “I’m glad I finally got to meet Fucking Bob. This is the most fun I’ve had since…,” he looked down and screamed at Bob on the floor, “JULIE DIED!”
Frank strode out the door into a misty rain. He walked to the end of the block and sat in a covered bus stop. He put his head in his hands and cried.