By Theresa Tyree
Taylor is the barback at my bar. I’ve been a regular longer than he’s worked there. When he got the job, it didn’t take me long to learn his name because the very first thing he did was insult me. My bartenders and I regularly give each other a hard time. I suppose you could say it’s our love language. We’re sincere from time to time – we’re all friends, and our jibes aren’t meant to hurt. Instead, it feels like sparring. And Taylor caught on fast.
Taylor quickly became one of my favorite people to talk shit with. He was wicked in the ring; clever, articulate, and entirely too observant for his own good – everything he said was tailored with intention.
He was fun. That was all. Just fun. A pretty face, immaculate ginger hair, dark lengths of skinny jeans and a silver tongue. He was candy, something sweet for the eyes and ears while I sat at the bar with whiskey singeing my tongue, but something I could never trust to nourish me.
He was a man.
When I tell people I’m bisexual but don’t date men, I get quizzical looks. “Doesn’t that mean you’re a lesbian?” they ask.
What it means is that I trust women to be sympathetic and respectful. One man I tried to date told me he was a feminist. Three dates later, he was guilt-tripping me for asking him not to compliment me physically. This is the difference in gender; this is the divide in my interest: I can’t be with partners who make me less than I am, who turn my needs into problems, who explain how symptoms of this corrupt society are something I should learn to avoid instead of fix.
One night, one of my bartenders came into the bar. It was the first time I’d gone dancing since the shooting in Orlando. I’d not only spent time on my makeup that night, I’d worn my favorite little black dress. I could have gone to war in that dress, a brunette version of Black Widow – I was dressed to kill. I’d done it on purpose to make myself feel comfortable that night at Blues. I was scared. Forty-nine of my queer siblings had just been murdered at Pulse, fifty-three injured. In response, I’d decided to go dancing to remind myself that not everyone in the world wanted to kill me with an assault rifle for being different. I wore my dress and mascara like battle paint – an anthem of my pride and a testament to my strength. But when my relationship-troubled, drunk-off-his-ass bartender walks in for a nightcap at his place of work before calling it a night, that isn’t how he seems to see it.
Pete is a wonderful man. He makes some of the best damn cocktails I’ve ever had. He’s inventive, he’s funny, and he’s made me laugh in dark times. But too many friendly back rubs on exposed skin suddenly screamed danger.
My bar is a safe place. I’m never afraid there the way I am in other establishments, the way I am sometimes on the streets where I thread my keys preemptively through my fingers. Everyone looks out for each other here, and the bar staff is watchful. Even though Tony is busy with drink orders and Kelly (the only woman employed at the bar and my automatic ally) and Cliff set out for home a half hour before when their shifts ended, Jim sits two chairs down from me at the bar, nursing his mezcal. I know he’s paying attention.
He’s not the only one.
Taylor stops to talk to me. He cleans a glass nearby. He passes us at the end of the bar on his way to the backroom. I know he’s aware. I can feel him watching.
So even though I’m uncomfortable and Pete is invading my space and leaning against me in a way I know he never would when sober, I smile and I laugh and I verbally disarm him. When he grasps my wrist and holds too tight, I ask him what he’s doing and hold my wrist up so he and everybody else can see his fingers on my skin. Perhaps it is this last action that restores a modicum of sense to Pete’s alcohol-riddled brain, the sight of my bare wrist confined in his hand for no reason. He lets go. Then he departs for a smoke outside.
I immediately switch chairs, changing my position from the easily accessible end of the bar to one chair in, next to Jim. I stay for another twenty minutes. Tony and Jim talk some smack about Pete’s behavior, finish me with a champagne cocktail, and send me on my way feeling full and relieved again. But as I turn the corner to my car, I pull out my phone and send a message to Taylor.
I have a few of the bar staff’s numbers. Taylor asked to be my friend on Facebook a while back. This is the first time I’ve made direct use of this connection, however.
I pull up a new message and type. I wasn’t imagining it, right? Pete was definitely a little too much in my space?
I’m driving when I get his response. I wait until I get home to check it. When I do, I’m taken aback.
No, you weren’t imagining it. I don’t know why he thought that was appropriate, but everyone noticed. I apologize for that. He seemed pretty fucked up. But that’s no excuse.
I expected a very short answer, just a yes or no. A small reassurance, like the ones Tony and Jim offered me at the bar. Instead, he’s apologizing. He’s angry.
Thanks, dude, I respond. It was good knowing you and Jim were there, though. This wasn’t your fault at all. Tooootally on Pete. I’m just glad to know I wasn’t imagining it.
I’m saying this because I don’t want him to feel like I’m mad at him. Or maybe it’s a conditioned response at this point. I like what he’s saying, and I’m afraid if he thinks I take issue with him or “all men” he’ll stop saying it.
Yeah but still, he continues, I feel the need to apologize for more. This is a total boys’ club (even with Kelly) and all of our humor is unnecessarily crude and of a rudimentary sexual nature. None of it is serious, but it can get out of hand sometimes. Seeing not only Pete, but some things Jim did really reminded me why women desire safe spaces, generally and understandably, with other women. You’re an awesome and intelligent person and I’m always happy to have you in my bar. I hope this hasn’t deterred you from joining us sometime in the future.
Now I’m touched. The empathy of his first message was enough to make me feel justified in my discomfort earlier. Now he’s calling out not only Pete, but the bar as a whole, even maybe himself. He’s admitting things I didn’t ask him to admit. Completely unsolicited, with no nudging whatsoever from me.
I wash off my makeup, change into my pajamas, and write back. Dude, never. I love the bar, and I’ve called out the staff before about sexist stuff and been met with totally mature responses when they’re sober. I feel valued and protected at the bar. I know if it had gotten out of hand not only could I have dealt with it, but I wouldn’t have had to. You and Jim totally had my back, and I knew you were there for me. I do appreciate the apology and the sympathy, though. I don’t know many men that could be as upfront about this as you’ve been. Seriously, thanks.
Not a problem, he tells me. I would do it to my dying breath. Although we’re all victims of the human condition with all of its ego and stupidity, we will continue to fall short of greatness many more times. Assuredly. AND I WILL NOT FUCKING STAND FOR IT!!!
Curled up in bed, I stare at my phone with a sense of awe. Taylor’s messages weren’t just an apology, weren’t just an admonishment of others or an admission of participation, however accidental. They were the rage I felt whenever a man catcalled me on the street, whenever someone talked down to me or reduced me to my body. They were the exhaustion and the nights hidden in books and bottles of wine, because at least those couldn’t argue with me or call me crazy. They were the battle cry against the acceptance of learning to live in a world where when male friends got drunk and touched me, I let them.
Suddenly, Taylor’s not just a pretty face in flattering skinny jeans. Suddenly, he’s done everything I’d grown to think men incapable of in a few short messages. Suddenly, I’m intrigued.
You have a good night, Theresa, he says. Keep dancing, keep talking shit.
Theresa Tyree is a graduate student studying book publishing at Portland State University. In her spare time, she blogs about food and media at noodlesfromtomorrow.blogspot.com.