Over the course of a month, I’m posting a short novella titled We Almost Had It which traces the friendships and romances of a group of thirty-something social media managers in Seattle as they try to figure out what a fulfilling life looks like in the digital age. The story was inspired by Shopping Is a Feeling, an album released by former Gastbys American Dream guitarist Bobby Darling under the moniker What What What. Click here to go back to the second chapter, “Numb in the Middle”, or here to start the story over at the beginning.
Nestled between a tattoo parlor and a nameless storefront whose neon signage read only PASSPORT PHOTOS HERE, The Cha-Cha was pseudo-dive bar that reminded Alex of being a child and sitting with his parents as they watched Cheers on their wood-paneled console television, except that the reminiscence arose almost exclusively out of contrast. The Cha-Cha was decidedly a place where nobody knew his name.
“Are you sure this is where you wanna go?” asked Randy.
“It was Paul’s choice, not mine,” said Alex. The mustachioed doorman appraised them both with a disapproving glance but ultimately gestured them inside. Alex shuffled into the crowded bar and then angled his body to fit between two tables that were too close together. Paul was nowhere in sight and there was no chance of calling out for him given the roar of conversation and the jangling sound of Modest Mouse blaring moodily overhead.
“Let’s get a drink,” shouted Randy. Alex nodded in agreement.
Wedging himself into a sliver of open space at the corner of the bar, Alex raised his hand to flag down a bartender who looked at him, made eye contact, then turned and walked to the other side of the bar where he started chatting animatedly with two bar-backs.
“Did he not see you?” asked Randy.
“I’m pretty sure he saw me.”
“We’ve been here for two minutes and I already hate this place.”
Alex leaned forward across the bar and waved an arm in an effort to once again get the bartender’s attention. At the far end of the bar, the bartender was now miming what appeared to be a bowling routine as he laughed with his co-workers. “Hey,” Alex said, his voice drowned out immediately by the bar’s natural cacophony. He waved his hand again. “Excuse me.” A woman with her back turned to Alex glared at him over her shoulder. The bartender continued to ignore him.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Randy yelled. “What’s a black man gotta do to get a drink in this place?” A tense silence quickly fell around them. The woman who had glared at Alex got up and left her seat. Sensing trouble, the bartender sidled over. He looked put out and also a little frightened.
“What’ll it be?” He ran his fingers along his suspender straps and eyed Alex and Randy as if they were most unwelcome.
“A couple of Heinekens,” Alex said.
“We don’t have Heineken.” A bushy eyebrow raised with judgmental insinuation.
“Just two beers, then. Whatever you have.”
The bartender came back a moment later with two pale beers, thick head slopping over the tops of the glasses. “Fifteen,” he said. Alex slapped a twenty dollar bill onto the counter and then turned his back on the bar and handed Randy his beer.
“Why does your brother come to these places?” At that moment, as if summoned by his mention, Paul arrived wearing a narrow blazer and black framed glasses, his brown hair swept stylishly to the side.
“Well, look at these classy bastards,” he said, putting a hand on each of their shoulders. “Back in a moment, gentlemen.” Winking at Alex, he walked past them and raised a hand in the direction of the bartender. He returned a moment later holding a precisely made Old Fashioned.
“How the hell did he do that?” Randy asked Alex.
“I have no damn idea.”
“What?” Paul asked over the music. Alex shrugged in response. “Well, let’s get a table, shall we?”
An hour or two later, in the back corner of the bar, the three friends were hunched over a table littered with empty glasses.
“They fired him?” Paul asked.
“Shitcanned his ass!” exclaimed Randy. “No warning. Just boom, it’s over.”
“Goddamn. You kids and your unreliable tech pseudo-jobs.”
“Here we go again,” said Alex.
“What? Because I don’t work in tech I can’t understand it? You guys live and work in a world that is almost entirely separate from the world of every single person that’s come before you. Your jobs didn’t exist five years ago and couldn’t have even been imagined five years before that. Doesn’t that seem like too much change to you? Too much, too fast?”
Alex rolled his eyes but Paul continued undeterred.
“New corporate America uses algorithms to tell me what I like and what I want and who I am but, in reality, they don’t know anything about me. Algorithms have reduced everyone into a dataset that approximates the shape of a person but it’s not a person, it’s data. Lots and lots of data. And I’m more than that—we all are. I certainly don’t remember asking to live in this tech-dystopia. I guess I must have missed the part where everyone signed up to be numbers.”
“It is crazy, man,” said Randy. “Sometimes I think everyone’s lives will be a lot better once we get into the next phase of the internet, post whatever-this-is right now. These transitional periods can be a real mess.”
“I don’t know,” said Alex. “It’s just a job.”
Paul wasn’t convinced. “Is it, though? Randy’s right. Tech—social media and all the rest of it—is more than a job, it’s a lifestyle, a way of seeing and living in the world. The rest of us are on the outside looking in, trying to make ends meet using our hands to make stuff or turning around and selling that stuff to other people. You guys get paid to talk to kids on the internet. You’re not creating a product, you’re not selling one and you’re not really advertising one either.”
“It’s not that simple,” said Alex.
“Close enough. You tech guys learned how to code and created this whole new economy where participation is mandatory but where only tech companies have money and power.”
“That’s not fair. It’s not like Randy and I make a ton of money.”
“Amen,” said Randy.
“Maybe you specifically don’t, but you can bet someone in your company is making it, not to mention all the Amazon and Microsoft techies that are driving up prices and pushing us plebs out of the city. You’ve made the rest of us outdated.” He waived an arm at the room, sloshing beer onto the table as he gestured at the predominantly man-bun-wearing denizens of the bar.
“Paul, the drinks here are like $20. This is not a bar for the working class,” said Alex.
“Forget about this place. The fact that you get paid at all to hang out on social media all day is fucking absurd.”
“No argument there,” said Randy, raising his glass.
“I’ll tell you who isn’t getting priced out of this city, though,” said Paul with a smirk that made Alex nervous. His older brother had always been the mischievous one, getting into trouble and dragging Alex with him or, more likely, getting Alex into trouble and then either bailing on him or letting him squirm a bit before offering help.
“Who?” asked Randy.
“That, Randy, is the big question. The answer, I would hazard, is a name that has been lurking in my dear brother’s brain for some time now, as it is—most assuredly—the answer to a good many of his questions beyond this one.”
Alex shifted uncomfortably in his seat, took a swig of his beer and then became deeply interested in his phone.
“Oh yes,” said Paul, enjoying his brother’s anxiety from a distance. He never really intended to torment Alex, but he always thought his brother was too soft and that a little teasing would firm him up. It was a tactic that, 32 years into their brotherhood, hadn’t yet seemed to work, but Paul wasn’t quite ready to give it up. “She’s back.”
“Who’s back?” asked Randy.
Paul leaned back in his seat, grinning a twisted smile. “The one and only Kelli Mitty—although it’s Kelli Streng these days. Alex’s white whale. The one that got away. The great love of-”
“Alright, Paul. Enough.”
Paul’s look softened and he leaned forward, getting his elbows damp on the wet table. “I’m just teasing you, little brother. Giving you a hard time, is all. You know I only ever want the best for you.”
“Yeah, yeah, okay. Whatever.” Alex was thoroughly regretting coming out tonight. Or any night, really. What good had socializing ever done him? He’d have been better served going home right after work. He could have had a few beers while he played Destiny and then finished reading those speaker reviews.
“As you so often do, you’re missing the point, Alex,” said Paul. “Why do you think I wanted to meet here tonight? This place is an insufferable hipster hole.” He leaned back in his chair looking exceptionally satisfied with himself.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Another good question. As it is, I met Billy Dolan for a beer last night—face to face, mind you, the old fashioned way, not IM-ing or DM-iming or whatever it is you kids are doing these days.”
“Aren’t you only like 35?” interjected a pleasantly bemused Randy. He was enjoying the anarchy of these two brothers who looked so alike and yet were so utterly different.
“37, but thank you,” Paul continued. “As I was saying, Billy and I had an in-person drink last night, not unlike what we’re doing in the here and now, and during said drink he happened to mention that the once and future queen of the Emerald City, our beloved Kelli, was returning to us. His word is generally trustworthy on this topic given his once and, presumably, future flirtations with-”
“Rachel Baser,” the brothers said in unison.
“Exactly,” said Paul. “Well, our associate Billy indicated that not only had Kelli returned to our northwestern enclave with her husband—a tech mogul such as yourselves, from what I gather—but that she was going out on the town tonight. To a small, obnoxious hipster bar from what I can recall.” As fear dawned on Alex, Paul made a show of exaggeratedly looking around the room.
“No,” said Alex, feeling his stomach fall out from inside him and splatter across the dirty floor. “Paul, no.”
“Well, if you think Billy was lying then you have far less faith in him than I do but I can’t imagine-”
But Alex didn’t hear what Paul couldn’t imagine because at that very moment his wide eyes caught sight of her from across the room. It was all too true, all too real. She was back: Kelli, the only girl he had ever really loved and therefore the only one he’d ever really lost. His senses were overwhelmed by the sight and he was equally overwhelmed by the desire to be as utterly and irrevocably far from that place as humanly possible.
“I’ve gotta go,” he said as he hastily threw his messenger bag across his shoulder. “I’ll see you guys later.”
“Oh, come on,” said Paul. “You’re overreacting. I’m sure she won’t even—Alex!”
Alex squeezed his narrow frame between people in the crowded bar, moving towards the exit as expeditiously as he could.
“He’s not going to talk to her, is he?” asked Randy.
“I doubt it,” said Paul through half-lidded eyes.
“Thank God. Have you seen what a mess he is when he tries to talk to women?”
“Randy, you have no idea the kind of mess that he can be.”
Given how violently it was beating in his chest, Alex considered it a small mercy that no one else in the bar seemed to be able to hear his heart. When he saw that Kelli had joined a small group against the wall to his left, he cut through the center of the bar as he tried to make his escape. But the anxiety that propelled him to make a secretive exit wasn’t sufficient to restrain his eyes which kept darting from the door to Kelli and back again. He was close to safety, only four or five steps from escape, when she turned to head towards the bar and—because Alex couldn’t pry his eyes from her—made eye contact. Their eyes locked and hers were filled with unregistered memory; in a moment, recognition would flood over her. All he had to do was break eye contact and look down at his feet which could have carried him to the refuge of the street but when she saw him she smiled and, my god, if her smile wasn’t the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, even after all these years. He found in that moment that he’d missed it and missed her even more than he had thought.
“Alex?” she said from across a distance that spanned years. “Oh my god, Alex!” And then she was there and he could breathe her in and she put her arms around him and her touch was like drowning, beautiful and suffocating and unmistakably the end. Alex welcomed the abyss. What was he going to miss after all? Nothing but her.
“It’s so good to see you,” she said. “I ran into your brother last night and he said you might be here tonight and, I don’t know, I guess I was just hoping to see you.” Her smile burned like cold iron and the words poured out of her like wine. “It’s so good to see you. Did I say that, already?”
“You did, actually,” he said. In the unexpected strangeness of the moment, they both laughed and the shared sound, the shared experience, was utterly intoxicating. “You look amazing. What brings you back to town? I thought you were living in California with all the other beautiful successes.”
“Well, there’s not much to tell of beauty or success but I was living in California. We, um, just moved back.” She folded her hands in on one another and Alex couldn’t help but notice that she was running her fingers—nervously?—over her ring. “Me and my husband.”
“That’s right,” Alex said. The beautiful moment was over. The past was dead and now he was falling, just like had been for years. “I thought there was a Mr. Kelli lurking around somewhere.”
“You know, I think you’d like him, Alex. He’s into tech stuff, too.”
“Well, I can’t argue with that,” he said. It was exactly the opposite of the truth. Alex felt a crushing need to rid himself of that place, to cut off the brief connection that had been reforged so easily after all those long years of waiting and that had felt, for such a fleeting moment, like salvation.
“So look, I’ve actually got to get going,” he said. “But Paul’s here, so you should say hello.”
“Oh, right. Sure. Okay.”
“Yeah, but, um. It was great seeing you. I’m glad you’re back in town.”
He turned to walk out the door and it seemed like his back was to the sun, as if he could feel her glowing behind him, brilliant and bright, while he wandered as a shadow in her light. He would be better off blending into the darkness.
Halfway down the block a hand took his arm.
She was back, somehow. She had come to him, had shifted her gravity—if only for a moment—to fall into his orbit.
“I called your name but you didn’t answer. You okay?”
“What? Oh. Yeah, I’m fine. Just lost in thought, is all.”
“You always used to do that,” she said and a hint of that magnificent smile broke across her face again.
“You always hated it.”
“Sometimes. But sometimes it was kind of cute.”
Standing in the heart of Seattle, the city buzzing and swirling around them, Alex couldn’t understand how the place that he called home could become so unfamiliar. But on this night, a night that had been like any other until only a few fraught moments ago, anything seemed possible. There were so many things to say, so much to admit and plead and confess that Alex couldn’t gather his thoughts into speech.
“Anyway, I’ll let you go,” Kelli said. “It really is good to see you again, Alex. I mean it.” The words were a perfect dagger, slicing through the arterial tissue and cutting directly to the bleeding, pumping center of him. It was a beautiful pain.
She reached out a hand but as it extended she seemed unsure of what to do with it. In the end, she gave him a gentle squeeze on the shoulder. She smiled again and turned to walk back into the bar. Alex watched her disappear through the door as if he was watching a shooting star. As quickly as she had come, she was gone.
Still, Alex grinned.
As he walked home, the sound of his shoes seemed to rap out a song on the concrete and he seemed to catch each stoplight so that his stride never broke or failed. The sun set and faded into a rose red sky whose glow illuminated the horizon and glittered off the Sound.
For all its faults, it truly was a beautiful night.
Click here for the fourth chapter of We Almost Had It, “Fucks With You.”