“What on earth am I doing?” is what I completely fail to think, as I position my hand so that when the portly-but-attractive bartender (has he been giving me the eye, or is it my imagination?) puts my glass back down on the counter, his fingers will make contact with mine.
It works — can’t have been by accident, he could easily have avoided the touch — and I also fail to feel guilty, despite the fact that my friend M., seated next to me, is in the middle of a college reminiscence that I have not been quite paying attention to. I refocus.
M. is not really my friend. I’ve met him once before, several years ago and for maybe five minutes. I knew his wife L. in high school, but she’s not really my friend either: we’ve lived in the same town for two years and only run into each other a couple of times, and not even on purpose. But L. invited me to a barbecue at their house the other weekend.
At first I thought I was being set up with some girl or other. People do this to me every once in a while, because I am single and not unattractive, and besides I have a good job and even a motorcycle and am somehow not married yet. But then I realized I was being set up with her husband, so to speak; I hear through the grapevine that their marriage is not all smooth sailing these days, and I suspect that her efforts to get him some “guy time” (her words) might be part of some plot to save them by saving him.
As the barbecue goes on, I start to think it might be a good plan. Does he have anybody to see, anywhere to be but with his wife and four kids? It’s clear that he loves them all, but what man can spend all his time with women and children and not go a little bonkers?
Just because a man’s straight doesn’t mean he stops needing men. On the contrary. This is something my straight friends have taught me: they enjoy and even need each other so much that I wonder how I got along in comparative isolation for so long.
Of course I don’t know any of this about M. It’s purely speculative, and incredibly presumptuous besides.
I stay for three or four hours, chat with M. and his wife, play with his kids (his five-year-old son knows Karate! Instant bond: we trade techniques and are pals in 10 minutes flat), eat burgers and drink beers. M. and I share a smoke before I leave — he quit four years ago but is more than happy to indulge when he gets the chance — and exchange phone numbers.
Yesterday I text M. on a whim and ask if he wants to meet for a drink today after work. He agrees, which brings us to the bar tonight. I’m only on my second drink, but this is one of those high-class gourmet-beer joints where the alcohol content tends towards the double digits, and I am a lightweight anyway. This brings us back to the bartender, too, who I wouldn’t have even noticed if he hadn’t interjected something into our conversation five minutes ago.
I certainly wouldn’t have noticed that the bartender’s got The Look, or that he’s paying me more attention than is strictly warranted by the duties of his position. But what on earth? Where do I think this is going to go? Is this what normal people mean by flirting? Is this wrong, or is it just harmless fun? But I’m not thinking about any of this, not much, because I have been drinking.
Meanwhile I am, frankly, enjoying M.’s company. We have some things in common: a love of classical music, a disinclination towards team sports; a background, however slight, in martial arts. He is easy to talk to.
As the beer flows, the conversation steers, by unnoticeable degrees, towards more personal things. We go from drinking stories to how he met his wife to, suddenly, questions of faith. He’s an agnostic now, he says; something has been draining away for the last six years, and now he’s not sure what’s left. It doesn’t make things any easier with his wife.
We’ve both got to get home, but we stand talking outside for a bit first, and share another smoke. Then I think, duh, and invite him to adoration with me on Tuesday morning. He is eager and tentative at the same time, so I press the point, busting his balls a little bit, and put it in my calendar: “Call M. to go to adoration. DO IT.”
Back at home I am recuperating, waiting for the fog to clear. I flop on the couch, going over the events of the evening, congratulating myself for actually doing some evangelizing for once, thinking fondly of what a great guy I am; then wincing suddenly as I remember flirting with the bartender, not two minutes before talking about faith and doubt and Providence and Adoration. Like some kind of expert.
Lord, I’m a narcissist. But I meant what I said about Adoration, meant every word when I was telling M. how much my daily half hour of prayer has changed my life. I think of Dostoevsky:
Beauty! I can’t bear the thought that man of lofty mind and heart begins with the ideal of Madonna and ends with the ideal of Sodom. What’s still more awful is that man with the ideal of Sodom in his soul does not renounce the ideal of the Madonna, and his heart may be on fire with the ideal, genuinely on fire, just as in his days of youth and innocence. Yes, man is broad, too broad. I’d have him narrower.1
Me too, Dmitri, me too. It’s terribly confusing work, being human. But I think it’s going to work out.