The Close Call
ALL THE BEST BARS ARE HAUNTED, and the one at Kramerbooks is no exception. But it's rare that the ghost has a name or that one remembers how his arm was tattooed with a plate from William Blake's "Songs of Innocence."
Peter was Irish pale, with black hair greased into spikes. Every time he delivered my Scotch we made small talk about Blake, or music, or skydiving. One day, after his boss chewed him out for not staying behind the bar, he gave me a long look. "I would like to talk to you more," he said.
But on our first date, a poetry reading, he didn't show. After a half-hour of waiting, I slumped down and covered his empty seat with my jacket. Hurrying out as the reading ended, I pushed open the iron doors of the theater -- and there was Peter, shivering in a silk coat.
"I fell asleep on my friend's couch," he said. "When I got here late, they wouldn't let me in." He thrust a battered copy of "The Collected Dorothy Parker" into my hands. "Forgive me?"
Just out of college, I had a carefully planned life: full-time job, full-time grad school. Peter was unplannable. A "date" might be 40 minutes between bar shifts, meeting at Petco to look at cats. Or splitting $90 worth of sushi on his bare floor, listening to opera and ignoring the roaches. I liked to watch him work: lighting cigarettes, inventing cocktails, assuring a regular that he could pay next time. I had a diploma, but he had a skill that I'd never learned: He could improvise.
One night I came to the bar, shaken by the vicious fighting of a couple living next door to me. She had pounded on doors, pleading to be let in. Dragging sounds. Cursing. I'd called the police, but they found only a deserted hallway. This was nothing like dorm life.
As I told Peter the story, I tried to keep working on overdue drafts, mechanically commenting in red ink. He grabbed my pen.
"Hey, hey," he said. "Come on." He put my papers behind the bar. Customers were waiting to order; he ignored them. We walked out to Connecticut Avenue, where snow had just begun to fall. "You need to stop. Breathe."
I stopped. I breathed. He kissed me on the nose.
"Okay," he said. "Now go do your work."
He introduced me to his father, an elegant man who had come out of the closet and now lived in Florida. Peter talked openly about his complicated family, his struggles with sobriety. I didn't press with questions. For his sake, I thought.
There were signs. Friends whom he refused to introduce when we ran into them. Days when his energy flagged so suddenly that I'd have to help him stagger home. He showed up once wearing a new variation of his standard outfit (white button-
down, jeans clutching his skinny frame) with Armani tags dangling. "New credit card," he shrugged.
Then five days passed with no contact. I left joking-but-
worried messages on his machine: "Hey, last time you took my fork home with your Chinese food. Fork-stealer! Call me."
When he called, his voice was weak. He was leaving a hospital. Two days earlier, he'd been jumped in his building's elevator, his wallet stolen. He'd lain on the floor for several hours, unconscious, a staph infection spreading from one arm to the other.
Heroin, he said, and I almost dropped the phone. The dominoes kept falling. He owed people money. He wasn't safe in Washington. He would check into rehab the next day, a facility that didn't allow outside contact for the first two months. In Oklahoma.
He asked to see me one last time before he left. I met him on Connecticut Avenue, where he was peering through store windows. I realized he was looking for forks.
"Oh, hon," I said. "It's just stainless steel. It's okay."
"None of this is okay," he said. Blink: He was an agitated mess, pus in each elbow. Blink: He was my boyfriend. There wasn't much time. He wouldn't let me help him pack. He didn't want me near his building. He promised to send contact info.
"Love you," he said, getting into a taxi. I would never hear from him again.
For weeks, I went to the bar every Tuesday and wrote him letters. The bartenders gave me free drinks. But those bartenders gradually quit, one by one, and with them left any proof Peter had existed. No one else had met him. To my college friends, he was an abstract punch line: "Could be worse. I could be dating a junkie." To my family in the suburbs, he was the close call.
Let's get lost, Chet Baker sang. Maybe some people are meant to get lost. Maybe he did me a favor. But even six years later, I can't pass by the bar without looking for him. There's a stack of envelopes in my closet, still sealed. Each lettered "Peter" in the hopeful script of a 22-year-old, with space for an address that never came.