Published on October 23rd, 2023 | by Amanda Fields1
The old man at the bar sips on his third martini and awaits lobster bisque. When it comes, it’s in a small square bowl, creamy orange with a sprig of parsley. He bends to the bisque, sighs happily, long earlobes dangling, fingernail-sized liver spots on his cheeks and neck.
The bartender, Sam, has a decorative sleeve and perceives what everyone at this paramecium-shaped counter wants just when they want it. She brings me another mango margarita and nods. Sam takes care of the old man, who never tells me his name, and I don’t tell him mine.
If the old man were penning this encounter as fiction, he’d be Hank Chinaski, Arturo Bandini. I’d be just another woman, probably an easy lay if it weren’t for the presence of the man I came here with. I’m wearing a yellow dress, prominent cleavage, hem at the knees. I’ve taken to wearing such dresses since mid-life divorcing after my ex-husband had an affair at our mutual workplace.
Showing off my body used to feel superficial. I would drape myself in oversized clothes to try to hide my breasts, ashamed of my stomach, my shape. Now I like feeling pretty. Now I sheathe my body in brightness.
Earlier, the old man scooted one seat over so that I could sit with the man I’ve been dating for eight months. He’s tall, shaves his head, has a long beard. He looks like he could pound my ex-husband into the ground, an enjoyable thing to imagine at my stage of grief, when so many base emotions are satisfying.
Still, I’m beginning to let it sink in that I wouldn’t even call this man a partner or boyfriend, and that he’s an anxious, and slightly dangerous, grump. If he’s at all perturbed, he shuts down and no one else is allowed to have fun. He often wears a red shirt that says, “I Hate Everyone.”
I know better. I should have severed this connection; I could have cut it off the moment he told me that every person he has dated has been a narcissist, an alcoholic, a gaslighter, crazy. I should have stopped it when he told me that his cat likes crazy women, and his cat likes me. A thinking woman would have walked straight away the first time his eyes flashed with rage. A smart woman would have noted that he kept going and said good luck as she slid down an icy hill in Purgatory Falls and clamped around a tree. She would have gotten within range of cell service and called a Lyft. A woman with a clear head should do better. But, when you have been manipulated for years, it’s hard to know what is good and right for you until it pinches you real hard. It takes time to do what should be obvious. It makes you feel dumb and weak, so dumb it’s hard to even process with your therapist.
I Hate Everyone is trapped in conversation with another regular whose hound jowls slosh as he partakes from wine in a silver bucket wrapped with a linen napkin. They both look miserable. They keep talking.
I hear out the man with the lobster bisque. He’s had three wives, the most recent dead and the only one he fathered children with. She’s the reason he’s in Florida, at her old timeshare. He leans close to tell me something he doesn’t just tell “anybody.” We should all marry people we like, he observes: we don’t have to love them; we can’t be picky. What we need are companions. Take hold of that, he says. Don’t forget it.
Maybe for twenty years, I thought I had a companion.
A woman stares at me from across the bar. I wonder if she will put me, in my yellow dress, in the story of her evening. I want to assure her I don’t believe a word this man is saying, and right now he’s lamenting how sad he feels for any kid growing up right now, these kids who have weathered a pandemic and shootings and all the ways our culture has lost its humanity and logic. He embraces the pedagogy of the dying: the world is falling apart.
My kid is eight, solid and resilient, savvy and kind. She knows her parents are not on good terms. She puts my face in her hands when I need it, and I put hers in mine. I have hope. She knows how to talk about her feelings with friends. They care about the environment. They’re not here for our bullshit. I am not here for this man’s bullshit. I think of my kid now: not men, not companions. I stir the lime into the margarita.
When we leave, in our cups, my companion says he’s disgusted by all the sad old men at the bar.
I say, We don’t really know their stories. You don’t know if they’re sad.
They depressed me, he says sternly.
I take his hand onto my thigh. I let him into me.
The next morning, he’ll call me a bitch because, unable to sleep, I stayed up later than him. I was too loud when I popped open a can of beer two rooms away as he snored and farted. He says that I am a narcissist, the biggest narcissist he has ever met, in fact. The worst. I change my flight; I pack; I uber to the airport. I come home.
On the beach a few days before, I eavesdropped on college boys, passing around beer and talking about jobs. One said, “Maybe if we get in the water, the girls will see us.” The girls hadn’t spared a glance at anything but the ocean as they set up chairs and rushed gleefully into the waves. The boys continued to sit.
Next to me, I Hate Everyone lay on a blue towel, thirty minutes on one side, then flip. He told me he tans beautifully. He hates sand. He reiterated that he came to the beach for me. One hour is what I get. I wore my new bathing suit, two-piece retro, something my daughter had helped me pick out. I told her I was going to a conference (true) but not that there was a man. I’ve kept a careful separation between all the men I’ve seen over these months and the space I maintain for her, one of the only stable things she has.
I Hate Everyone said nothing about my bathing suit or any of the dresses I’d bought for the trip. I felt embarrassed that I noticed this, that I needed validation.
He asked me to spray sunscreen on his back, then lay with his face in the towel and didn’t say thank you. I walked into the choppy waves, felt them toss up my dumb two-piece.
Until last year, I’d never felt comfortable in a two-piece. I dropped forty pounds quite soon after my ex-husband walked out the door, and people told me I looked great, even though I didn’t eat for months. My real weight had begun to creep back, but I felt good. After all, my body looked lighter simply from being free.
Back on my towel, I gazed at the beautiful women on the beach, at our distinctive bodies: the college students, the snowbirds, the middle-aged women and moms. We seemed happy and comfortable and glowing. Not one of us on this beach seemed to suffer from the inquisition of men. The college boys, crushing on the frolicking girls, popped open more beer, sat, unnoticed.
The man I was with grunted, I can’t stay here much longer. I hate the beach.
I ignored him and ground my toes in glittering sand, ran my fingers through sticky particles. I found tiny shells and sea glass. I reviewed each treasure to see if it was good enough for my kid. If it was good enough for me.