After a business trip that had turned into a pilgrimage, I went back to the town where I was raised to see what they had done with the pub.
I don’t know how I ended up tending bar there in the first place. Before I left all those years ago, I had thrown the keys in the air, a bridal bouquet in silver and soft leather. I didn’t intend to come back. I’d come to suspect, despite my original belief, that a leaderless movement is the only way to lasting change.
Seeking my freedom, I had tossed the keys without looking back to see who had caught them or who would barter, cheat or thieve to get them from whoever had randomly fallen into favored position closest to the end of that trajectory.
My trip had been fucking exhausting. I was shaky and pale when I stepped back onto the ground that once held a younger version of me, quite the contrast to my brand new crows feet, and my long, limber thighs. I returned because the pilgrimage part of this story had taken longer than expected. See, when a person refuses to strong-arm and and refuses to hire a publicist and refuses to cajole, coerce, lie, manipulate, and threaten, negotiations take longer. The arduous adventure nearly killed me. I will always be grateful for at least two things: I am alive, I am whole.
The men I left behind were right, you know. If you’ve heard them say anything at all, you’ve heard them say that when we first met I had no idea what I was doing. I was an over-serving shrunken soldier cursing God and screaming for anyone, anyone to hold my hand. Many did. The men I loved see themselves as the protectors of things. And they stand always facing the night with their chins jutted and their fists by their thighs. You might also have heard them say I was stubborn. That, too, is right, though I prefer the word independent. Some never figured out why it was necessary for me to do so much on my own.
Because of my insistence, when I had stopped screaming, they weren’t sure what to do with me. I had come to them naked as an orphan wrapped in ancient maps. I was easy, I was see-through. None of these men had watched a baby grow, and as I started to crawl through the muddy, abandoned river bed, they wondered if there was a reason to look more closely into my transparent need.
As I grew, I played with things. As I played with things, the pub stretched up and out. My heart started singing. These men came to see that they had missed something. Oh, how they fucking hate to miss things. They came to see, the more I served, that I could see them, too.
Without being aware, I had a gift, and these boys all dressed up in their expensive tailored suits and buffed shoes, began responding to it. What is my gift? I now call it love. Simply love. When they felt my gift, they began leaving their uncovered shames at my feet like I was some sort of goddess. (I pronounce it with the accent on ‘ess’. Goddesssss) A what? Me? This fucking child playing peekaboo in a living room filled with adults who could clearly see that I had not disappeared? I kept crawling off the pedestal. They kept chasing after me and scooping me back up onto it. Some even collaborated to construct beautiful antique bumper boards for the safety gates that others quickly installed around the boarders.
I loved them for it – every single one of them – in a way that is too much for any connotation of that word. I loved them for their messy, tangled ways of trying to love me. And they did love me, but that was a forbidden word for most of them. It was something I had to learn to feel instead of hear. Something I wasn’t sure of until long after I had left. They loved me for the way I saw through their bulletproof vests and the guns nestled in their armpits. And I loved them for the way they loved me for seeing them, because the ones who could not raise me had shirked from my eyes at all cost. I didn’t know I was different. I thought everyone knew that at our cores, most of us are the same. Even in all of our fucking exhausted tries that have cut others and inspired the burials of parts of others, most of us are love and need and seeking grace.
And I wasn’t sure what to do with their regrets other than what I had always done with shyly proffered gentle sins. I held them in my cupped palms like the precious jewels that they were. I cradled them in my arms. I sang them songs. I lifted them onto my shoulders and I danced them happy around the shabby pub. And we lit the room. We lit the pub. We lit up the entire fucking sky above that block.
This was new to them. Unexpected. They had never known their fears nor their misguided tries to be bathed and dried and accepted and celebrated as part of the bigger picture, part of being human, part of the whole of who we are and what we are doing here. To them, all sin was ugly. I offered them a different perspective.
And I’ll never know what that did to them. We rarely know the full depth of how we affect each other. I might have known more, but I didn’t stick around long after I learned to walk. Even as I walked, I worried, as most mothers do, that these men had assigned me too much weight for my simple act of kindness. I worry that some never moved beyond my over-serving. I was only meant to show them that is it possible. And I hope, as many mothers do, that they will see it as a kindness that comes from within.
But today, after flying overseas, I open the door to the pub and my heart presses into my spine as it skips a beat. Some are still there. Worse, the walls are filthy with man-made light that bathes vigils devoted to every divine version of me that they have ever believed to know. Some are crude mashups of the divine and the screaming child. These are my favorite ones. But I am sad.
The boys who raised me do not recognize me as I tessellate the room, running my fingers along the stuccoed walls, testing the resistance with my palm. I stop here and there, peering into the notches where the oxidized likenesses stand to guard the past. I run my hands along the brass rail that boarders the bar, a place nobody sits until the clock has ticked well past three a.m. each night. The rail is sticky. I doubt any of them have wiped it down since I left. Those who remain barely look up, as sunken into their carelessly mixed drinks as they are, believing me – even me – to be yet another version of someone who is not me to have mysteriously stumbled upon this unkempt pub. How anyone randomly finds this place I can’t imagine. The garden out front has grown so thick that it covers the door. The sign doesn’t light up anymore.
I don’t know what to do when I see them. My children. My loves. When I handed each of them a jet pack, my unspoken wish was for them to fly. But here they are. Broken in all the ways they had been broken when we met. Oh, how deeply I felt that failure. How I wished it had worked out differently for them. How fervently I have been praying that they would find a way to understand the separation between my childish over-serving and the joy that had once lofted their weary hearts. How I whispered into my pillow every night, “The blessing was in the courage you found to open your hearts, not in crossing my path.”
But hope can be like wax and belief like cement. As I avoid their eyes, dreading the moment of recognition, fighting the curl that brittles my chest wall for the first time in several weeks, I stare into the dead eyes of a particular likeness. High pitches hum in my ears. Fear says, “These versions of you – revered, flat, frozen, out of tune – are holding you back, pinning you down, tethering you to a person who no longer exists.”
I need to sit. I need to put my head between my knees. I wrap my momma arms around my ego and talk her down.
“You’re okay, darlin’, no worries. Don’t be afraid.”
But through her eyes, these are banal platitudes that could have been spoken to anyone. She resists.
So, I draw deeply from the earth and take a moment to clear my head. From somewhere, a question rises for her.
“What if this has been an exorcism?” I ask. “What if these lovingly hand-carved sculptures have been working here in the same way you were working overseas?”
She calms. She fades.
And then I rush to the bathroom before courage escapes me. I scribble a prayer on the wall and leave without speaking to any of the boys who had raised me. As I walk, the failure I felt inside the pub does not dispel. I piece this weight with a blade I keep in my backpack and I package each tiny square into simple white boxes. I tie helium balloons to the boxes. I watch them float up, up, up until they disappear. A little farther down the road, I can think of the men who were not sitting in that pub this afternoon. Joy returns.