“I wonder how we look to other people,” Penny said. “Do you think we look happy?”
She took a sip of her Guinness and stared blankly into the mirror behind the bar. under a poster for “The Commitments,” a movie we both loved about an Irish soul band.
We were at O’Connell’s Pub on Main Street in Lexington, Kentucky, a bar we’d never gone to before. I’d just returned from a trip to Spain and the same old haunts didn’t seem so appealing, especially since I wanted to talk about the future.
The scruffy bartender hated my Manchester United coat.
“Man U?” he said in a rich Irish accent. “I shouldn’t serve you.”
At first I thought he was joking, but he was stone cold.
He didn’t give two shits if Penny and me were happy.
I looked around the bar. There were three frat guys sitting adjacent to us; there was a couple that also looked college-age playing shuffleboard; a middle-aged man sat at the bar by himself drinking scotch. Between drinks he used his hand to hold his head up.
No one noticed us.
“People are too caught up in their own lives to wonder one way or another,” I told her.
“You really believe that?”
“Well, what do you think? Are we happy?”
I took a good look at Penny and knew her answer to the question. She took a long sip from her Guinness and looked in the mirror again, brushing her red hair back with the hand not holding the beer. She sat up straight on the bar stool and crossed her skinny legs, then uncrossed them. I got the feeling she was trying to find a posture that would look the coolest. She wasn’t comfortable in her own skin enough to just sit comfortably.
I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin, either. I’d been back for a week and the magazine I was writing for just went under. My lease was up in a month and I didn’t want to stay in Kentucky. I’d decided to flee for Montana and pick up a bartender job. My parents were there and my dad had been encouraging me to get my ass out there since my I lost my writing gig.
Penny didn’t know.
“I’m not happy,” I said plainly. “This place isn’t doing it for me. It’s not the kind of town I want to hold onto if I can’t do what I love. If I have to tend bar I’d rather do it in Montana and figure things out from there.”
Penny was working at Starbucks. She hated it. We’d both graduated from the University of Kentucky in December. It was April now and nothing was tying us to the area anymore. She was from Calgary and I was from Indiana, but our families had both relocated. There was nothing calling us to go back, there were no roots. We were free to create our own futures. We could go anywhere.
In June Penny’s mother – who also lived in Lexington – was moving to Denver. Penny wanted us to join her.
“What happened to going somewhere together?” she asked. “It doesn’t have to be Denver. What about Louisville? There is a culinary school there I like and you could get a job for a paper there. I’m sure you could.”
I was drinking Wild Turkey on the rocks and my glass had been empty for some time now. The bartender knew it, but he didn’t care.
“Another Wild Turkey over here,” Penny told the bartender.
Reluctantly, he grabbed my glass and refilled.
“I don’t want to live in Louisville, I don’t want to live in the Midwest,” I said. “I want a fresh start off the grid.”
She was persistent, but, like me, she was lost. We wanted to believe we were looking for the same thing, that we were heading the same direction, but we weren’t, and I couldn’t pretend.
“I’m sorry, Penny.”
The bartender set down my Wild Turkey and I took a sip right away, quickly, spilling a little on my thick, fluffy beard.
“This is just about your job,” she said. “It’s not about us, it’s not about me. You’re only thinking of yourself. Don’t you know we’re in this together?”
“We’re not really in this together,” I said. “We’re just too afraid to be alone.”
Her face reddened as she slammed her Guinness.
“I told you I loved you. Do you know how hard that was for me?”
Penny took a deep breath and stood up. She looked around again to see if people were watching us. One of the frat guys was, so was the bartender.
“Finish your drink. I want to go.”
Before I could respond she started walking toward the door, sticking me with the tab.
“You get a new coat and you’ll have better luck with the women,” the bartender said. “Guaranfuckinteed.”
When I stepped outside Penny was standing by my jeep with her arms crossed, pacing. Behind her was a nice view of the new courthouse square and fountain. Downtown had been renovated and cleaned up. Lexington was getting ready for the FEI World Equestrian Games. It had two years to prepare.
Lexington in April was often unfavorable. It was chilly, windy, with a steady sprinkling of rain.
We got in the car and said nothing. Penny grabbed onto me and started crying before I could start the ignition.
I held Penny, kissed her forehead and told her it was going to be alright.
“Can you do something for me?” she asked.
“Define your love for me. You told me you loved me. What does that mean to you?”
Rain hit the windshield harder as I took in the question.
Penny wasn’t like the other girls I’d met in Lexington. She wasn’t a hipster. We never had a 45-minute discussion about the best Ryan Adams album; she didn’t obsess over Andrew Bird.
She was a writer, and I loved her latest screenplay. It was a western revenge story that exemplified the morals and life lessons from James Owen’s Code of the West, especially “know where to draw the line,” “keep promises,” and “be tough but fair.”
Coincidentally, her screenplay inspired me to head west.
But Penny was different in her writing than she was in reality, and so was I. The headstrong, romantic letters we’d write while I was abroad captured what we longed for but not what we had, and we knew it when I returned, we knew it after we made love. We were cold, distant. confused. We were detached, smoking weed and watching “Deadwood.”
We could pour our hearts out to each other while we were thousands of miles away but had little to say to each other face to face.
I only knew her on the page, and she only knew me there, too. The people we loved didn’t truly exist.
“My love for you isn’t real,” I said. “I love the idea of you, not who you truly are, not who we are. It’s fiction.”
She looked at me blankly.
“You’re running away from me,” she said.
“I’m not running away from you. I just want to take this journey on my own to figure out who I am. I can’t love you if I don’t know who I am. Can you understand?”
“You want me to understand you but you aren’t making any effort to understand me. I want to bust out of this town, too, but I’ve got six more months before I get a chance to get the money I need to be a little more free on the road. All I am asking is that you wait a bit before you run off to Montana. And stop overthinking so much. Who I am on the page is who I am right here, right now. Don’t give me that.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “My mind is made up.”
“You’re going to regret it. Moving to the mountains is better as a thought than a reality.”
“Funny, that’s how I feel about us.”
Penny reached into her purse and grabbed a cigarette.
“Take me home.”