Chapter 8 for my attempt at National Novel Writing Month. Enjoy!
Collin and his friend from college David were sitting in a Chicago dive bar. Hank William III—not his grandfather Hank William—was playing on the jukebox. The bar was dark and old looking, its décor had not been updated since the 1970s, but the staff and most of the patrons were all young, probably in their mid-twenties. Most people were garbed in flannel and winter clothing. Some of them wore tight jeans and water-resistant jackets: they were clearly cyclists. Even in December, a segment of Chicago residents was brave enough and capable of biking around the snow-covered streets of the city.
One of the bartenders brought Collin and David two bottles of PBR. He was wearing a screen print t-shirt of Sloth from the Goonies, and above the image of Sloth, the lettering read, Hey, You Guys! The bartender also had silver ear gauges and a mustache that he waxed into curls on the side of his face. “Here you two gents go!” He said as he placed the order on the table.
David and Collin stood out in the hipster bar (at least in their minds). Both of them were 5-10 years older than anyone else in the bar. Also, they were outwardly academics. David was a researcher at the field museum, and Collin was a writing instructor. David had just come from work and was wearing attire befitting one who worked at a museum. Collin had been wearing his usual peacoat but had become hot and had taken it off. Now, he was simply wearing a loose t-shirt. Both of his biceps were slick with petroleum jelly and pink from recent tattooed. On his right bicep, there was a dragon that wrapped around the outside of his arm. On his left bicep, there was an eagle descending with its claws extended. Both tattoos were not filled in and were only illustrations of the creatures dug into his skin with black ink.
“Just, so you know,” David dryly remarked, “That’s a golden eagle, not a bald eagle on your arm.” At the museum, David had often passed by the cases with the various taxidermized birds of prey, so he acquired the ability to notice the subtle differences in some of them.
“I know. But I saw the image on my brother’s computer and decided that it would look good on my other arm.” Collin responded.
The semester at Wanetta State University had finished early, and Collin had driven down to Chicago to spend a couple days with his brother. He had intended to get one tattoo during his trip—that was the dragon. But two days later, as the dragon tattoo was still freshly scabbing, Collin decided that he wanted a second tattoo. While perusing through a folder on his brother’s computers of animal pics, Collin happened upon the image of the eagle taken in midair as it was swooping. He then impulsively got his second tattoo to balance out his arms.
David told Collin that he should have gotten something obscene tattooed on each arm.
Collin told him to screw himself.
They both chuckled. Despite being in their early thirties and somewhat professionals, the two of them reverted back to their college humor when together. In fact, Collin, David, and Lyla had been roommates for one year.
They both drank their beers in silence for a moment, trying to fathom the disconnect from their college days and now.
“Yeah, I’m sorry about you and Lyla. The situation between you two sucks. Recently, a lot of my friends and colleagues have had marital problem or getting divorced.”
“Must be something in the water.” Collin cynically commented as he took a swig.
“Must be. Remember my brother’s band?” David asked. His older brother had been in a band ever since Collin and David were in college. The band had been trying to break into the Chicago indie scene for the past decade.
Collin nodded and listened.
David continued, “Well, they broke up. The guitarist was sleeping with the drummer’s wife.”
“Yikes.” Collin remarked, “That will break up a band.”
“Another colleague of mine from my doctoral program, just told me that he and his wife were separating. Apparently, she wanted to have an open marriage, and he did not. They’re both tenured track professors with two kids.”
Collin scowled, “That’s awful.”
“Yeah, he’s pretty messed up. I guess she’s been hooking up with men and women at the professional conferences that she attends.”
“Ugh. Are they in the same field?” Collin inquired.
“Thankfully not.” David confirmed.
“Well, at least Lyla didn’t break up my band or cuckold me at work.” Collin commented.
“At least.” David replied.
Collin was discussing with his friend the developments that took place between him and Lyla over the past semester, when he saw a woman that seemed to be walking towards the two of them. She was holding a glass of wine.
The woman stood out from the other patrons because she was attired like a librarian or a store clerk, not in flannel. Also, she wasn’t wearing ironic hipster glasses. Her face seemed older or slightly more tired than everyone else. Lastly, by the way she moved, it didn’t seem like the glass she was holding had been her first, or even second, glass of wine.
Please don’t talk to us, Collin thought. But the woman did walk up to the two chatting friends. “This should be interesting,” Collin mumbled to David.
“What?” David asked. Then he felt a strange hand touch his back, startling him. The woman inserted herself in the middle of the two guys sitting and talking at the high table.
“Sorry, sorry, I didn’t mean to surprise you. My name is Kari. Do you mind if I chat with you two interesting gentlemen?” She held out her hand to Collin. He shook it. Her grip was limp and weird. She held her hand out to David. He shook her hand, but he made sure to put his left hand on the table with his wedding ring displayed prominently. David smiled wryly at Collin.
“So, so,” Kari opened, “What brings you two fine men to this establishment?”
“I’m just visiting the city and having a drink with an old college friend.” Collin said, trying to give Kari as little information as possible. Both he and David were sitting, and neither of them had offered Kari a seat. Still, she stood there.
“Excellent. Excellent. Old friends having a drink. So, anything else bring you to Chicago?” Kari asked.
“Yeah,” David offered, “Collin came here to get his tattoos.” Collin shot David a dirty look.
“I noticed that you had some ink done. May I look?” Kari asked.
“Sure,” Collin unenthusiastically permitted. Kari had all the sex appeal of someone’s tipsy aunt.
“Wow. Wow.” She said as she lifted the sleeves and examined the artwork on each one of Collin’s arms. She even touched the scabs. This creeped Collin out.
“These are so beautiful. A dragon and an eagle. What do they mean?” Kari inquired.
“They’re to symbolize my heritage.” Collin glibly shared. Kari did not take the hint.
“So, the dragon means what?” She probed.
“I was born in the year of the dragon, and my mom is Vietnamese. So, the dragon on my right arm is a Vietnamese dragon.”
“Fascinating. Fascinating.” Collin was starting to hate how Kari repeated her words. “And the eagle?”
“Golden eagle.” David clarified.
“What does the eagle symbolize?” Kari continued.
“It symbolizes my other half. My father is Native American. I’m American. It’s a symbol that’s important to both his heritage and this country.” Collin reluctantly shared. He that this would halt her grilling.
“Amazing. Amazing.” Kari gushed. “So, why get these tattoos now. In Chicago of all places?”
“Now was the right time. I needed to do something to make me feel strong. To remind me who I was. To remind me who I wanted to be.” Collin answered. He was surprised about how candidly he answered Kari. Prior to her question, he wasn’t exactly sure why he was getting his tattoos—he just felt a deep desire to do so. Now he heard what he’d likely been thinking.
Kari looked at Collin like she was holding back tears—not because of what he said—but because of whatever baggage she was clearly carrying into the conversation. Maybe she had a very bad day at work, maybe she just broke up with someone, or maybe she just got emotional whenever she had too much to drink. Regardless, Kari looked like she was preparing to take the conversation into a weirder direction.
“Hey, do you two gentlemen like art?” Kari asked after she had built up courage.
“No, I’m a historian.” David said, “But Collin does. He wrote poetry in college.”
Jerk, Collin thought, don’t tell her that.
“Wonderful. Wonderful.” Kari repeated as if to vex Collin. “How would you two like to come back to my place? We could put on some music, dim the lights, and make some art.”
“What kind of art are you proposing we make?” David wondered.
“I don’t know.” Kari said. “We can decide in the moment. See where inspiration takes us.”
Ugh. Collin had been polite and indulged Kari long enough, but he couldn’t take her needy creepiness any longer.
“Kari, I appreciate your offer to make art—with the both of us—but this is my last night in Chicago, and I would really like to spend it with my friend and his wife, who we will be joining for dinner later. If don’t mind we’re going to finish our beers and be on our way.”
Collins words seemed to deflate Kari, and she hesitantly concluded, “No worries. No worries. Hey, enjoy your drinks and the conversation, gentlemen. It was nice talking to you both. Hope your last night in Chicago is a doozy.” Kari then dejectedly slipped away with her glass of wine.
“Bye, Kari.” David said as she disappeared.
Once Kari was gone, Collin scolded David, “You dick! Why did you drag that out?”
Collin chuckled. “Heh, heh. You’re a man, she’s a woman. You two could have made some beautiful art.”
“Yeah, with you in the room! What a bizarre conversation. I hope I’m not that weird when I talk to women.” Collin thought about his overture towards his friend Ana. Ugh, maybe he had been.
“What do you think she’s going to do now?” David asked.
“I don’t know. Go home, finish her box of wine, make art by herself—with her three cats watching her.” Collin shook his head.
“I wonder what she does for a living?” David continued.
“I don’t care. Let’s finish these beers and get some dinner.”
“Yeah, Emma should be done with work by now. We can wait for her at the restaurant.” David offered.
The two friends chugged the rest of their PBRs and donned their winter garb to head into the Chicago winter.
Outside, a fresh layer of snow had already covered the parked cars. Some of the city streets had not been properly plowed for several days, so cars drove slowly by. Otherwise, they risked sliding out of control. The sidewalks were so filled with snow that pedestrians had to walk single file behind one another. If there was cross traffic, someone would have to step aside into the snow in order to let the other party pass. This ultimately resulted in snow falling into one’s shoes, melting from body heat, and creating wet feet.
It felt good to be in Chicago, hanging out with David, his friend from college. If Collin had not gotten Lyla pregnant is last year in college, the two of them would probably not have stayed together. He would have been able to move to Chicago with David and figured out the next stage of his life with his college friend, not spending his twenties as a father. Who knew?
Though he was not quite fully himself yet, Collin was starting to remember what some of his aspirations were prior to his decade spent with Lyla.