A line of people, perhaps even friends, stand at a bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Some of them are even fashionable.

***

Soledad, Aaron, Michael, Haley, and an unnamed fifth. Michael stands with his back to Haley. He looks past Aaron, over the brim of his pint glass, at Soledad. Aaron looks tense, humming something not on the speakers. Soledad wears a thin scarf, thick glasses. Haley sips and stirs. It’s 10 p.m. The bar is only half full. The music is not so loud.

***

Michael thinks about cheating on Haley, which, really, he should because she’s been cheating on him for nine months. But he probably never will. He has a difficult time looking people in the eye—man or woman. There are certain women in his sphere on these weekends who, when they say cheers with their glasses clinking against his, get annoyed with him for not looking them in the eyes. They tell him that it’s bad luck. But this makes Michael think that women look him in the eyes for no other reason.

***

Haley woke up this morning hungover, foggy. Not unusual. Nor were the receipts in her pockets from two bars she could not recall. She remembered the first of the three, Barcade, on Union Ave., where you can play vintage arcade games from youth like Double Dragon, Rampage, and drink beer and generally forget after three beers that anything happened after 1992. She remembers the bar’s name on the second receipt but doesn’t remember signing for it. Not unusual. Strange though was that her wrists throbbed all day, maybe harder than her forehead. She couldn’t recall why, until she returned to Barcade at 8 p.m., drinking off the last of her hangover, and she put her fingers on the buttons of a Back to the Future pinball machine, immediately making the tendons in her hands flare up, and she realized that she spent four hours between receipt one and receipt two playing this game. She is 29 years old. She thinks about quitting her job a lot.

***

Michael has been joking to everybody for years now that he’s going to join the circus. He knows nothing about the circus, but deep down he likes to think that he is already a part of it—this group of people, these dive bars, they somehow become a circus—though of course, it doesn’t have any trained beasts, but he’s seen Cirque du Soleil’s untraditional fare, and he’s happy thinking that anything can be a circus, even his own mundane twenties. He knows that they are mundane but he never fails to prop them up with these nights in these bars where he can pretend just a little bit longer into the day that, really, everything is one big, goddamned circus.

***

One of the women, the one near the far right, no, at the far right, drinking something from a straw, is the unnamed. She’s neither pretty nor ugly. Most of the men in the room would say she wasn’t even there. The women, too: she poses no competition and evokes no pity. So she is not there. She knows this as well. She’s known for a very long time that she is not funny. She sometimes reads hubristic journals for interesting things to say. But when the words come out, very few hear them because she is not there. Nobody knows who invited her but she is always here, not being here.

***

Aaron taps the beat of the song that his band just finished rehearsing in a warehouse on Wythe and North 14th. But the music of the bar is so much louder, so instead of his band’s lethargic post-rock he is thinking about a conversation he had with Kyp from TV on the Radio at the coffee shop that he baristas for in Greenpoint. Or was it Ira from Yeasayer? Or the Dirty Projectors? Did LCD really break up? Aaron nonchalantly drops the names of the musicians he’s served, acting as if his band was in the same category, as if everybody was indeed friends, and all of his real friends wonder if this is actually more annoying than if he openly bragged about these celebrity sightings that so few outside of Brooklyn would even consider sightings. Aaron doesn’t realize that he’s lost track of the beat of his own song in his head. He’s in sync with the beat by James Blake on the stereo now. He then wonders if he’s stolen the beat all along. Another measure passes. Then: he thinks, Yes. He’s stolen the beat of this song.

***

When Michael was 18, visiting New Orleans, he paid $35 for a poorly-inked tattoo of a treble clef on the inside of his wrist. He was in a band. He wrote songs on his guitar and when he played them for people in his small hometown in Vermont, they told him, “That sounds like a real song.” He went to college. He moved to New York. He got a job. He hasn’t written music in seven years. He grew up too responsible to gamble away his twenties at a coffee shop like Aaron has. Exorbitant rent, the high price of bread and beer, and his real job, which needs no description other than that it has been “real,” have all smothered any thought of “real” songs. The calluses on his fingertips are fleshy and soft. The fading treble clef reminds him of this every day and sometimes it depresses him for obvious reasons and sometimes he’s merely happy that he once did these things, which would make any of the people standing beside him depressed if they knew anything about it. Most often, though, he is jealous of Aaron, even when Aaron says he ate nothing but a $3 falafel all day.

***

Really though, it is only Michael who can’t stand Aaron’s name-dropping. Michael knows that at this point, a week from his thirtieth birthday, he’s never going to be a part of any circus, even a circus that cannot pay the bills, and when Aaron finishes his beer and pulls out his flat wallet, finding two dollar bills, and it is this moment that Michael pulls out a five and lays it on the bar in front of Aaron, and Aaron is apprehensive and Aaron starts thinking not so much about harmonies or melodies but of money and the money for food or the money for rent and the money to be in this city that doesn’t really want him here, and he doesn’t want to take Michael’s money, not so early in the night, but he’s going to take the money, and Michael is going to ask about band practice because he wants to at least hear what it could have been like, but as Aaron sips his new beer, he isn’t thinking about music, and he’s looking past Michael, and Michael again looks through Aaron, at Aaron’s most-often girlfriend, Soledad, who hasn’t said a word to anybody in ten minutes.

***

Behind Michael, Haley is bored but almost drunk—so she won’t be so bored soon. She wants to smoke a cigarette. She offers Parliaments and Aaron immediately says, “Yes” and trails her outside. Michael finishes his beer and looks at Soledad. He is not thinking about disregarding Haley so much as he is thinking about Aaron, though he does not disregard him either. Not in the least. He steps in closer.

***

Soledad has Dutch ancestry. No romantic blood. She doesn’t speak Spanish or Portuguese. It’s just how her parents rolled in the early ’80s—which is how she’s explained the Latina name since she heard her father explain it to a confused Kindergarten teacher in 1989. They “rolled.” Thinking about it recently, Soledad doesn’t know if she’s ever really rolled in any particular way. She’s fairly certain that she is rolling directly away from Aaron, but then again, that might take conviction, and Soley wonders too often whether she has that. She has instead been pulled. An example: Michael is pulling her onto the dance floor now. Literally. By the hand. She tells herself that she knows better. The floor is still empty; Aaron and Haley likely won’t be long. But then she second-guesses herself. She hasn’t spoken to her father in three weeks. Her mother on the opposite side of the country for longer. She decides that she is not being pulled. And before third-guessing her second-guessing, Soledad steps onto the bare dance floor with Michael. She has rolled.

***

Haley has $21,936 in credit card debt. She will have more in fifteen minutes. And then more after that. She doesn’t consider it irresponsible and she is right because everybody on this block, except Michael perhaps, has enormous debt, student or otherwise. It cannot be irresponsible if it is normal. Haley has worked for the same non-profit for five years and, after taxes, she’s never made more than $26,500 in salary. When things were really bad, in 2009, she took a pay cut. The cigarettes she smokes now were bought in her rural Illinois hometown, where they are a third of the price as in New York. She’ll never move away because, at this point, she’s put in too much energy, and she cannot give up now. She’ll never move away because something is bound to happen: she’s seen it so many times, for her friends, and for people who she says are her friends. She’ll never move away because this is “fucking Brooklyn” and she knows that it won’t be better anywhere else. She once did MDMA with a couple of Saturday Night Live cast members and it was a lot of fun. She’ll never move away because, frankly, she is happy, genuinely, if a bit drunk, and doesn’t need to explain why.

***

Michael and Soledad dance poorly on the darkened floor, and they draw stares, because it is too early in the night to dance. It’s not even 1 a.m. People still have energy without cocaine. And all of these people who are merely buzzed look at these two as if they must be embarrassingly drunk. And then they look closer, first at their smiles and then at their eyes, which give away before anything else, at least in this light, that something strange and terrific is happening between them, and then everybody realizes that they are jealous.

***

Or maybe the lighting is bad.

***

The first person that Haley slept with while seeing Michael was Aaron. She and Aaron talked about it for about five minutes afterwards in his disgusting bedroom in Bushwick but decided that it wasn’t worth talking about. So they haven’t.

***

Soledad smiles reasonably well now. She doesn’t know what Michael is getting at on the dance floor, but she is willing to see where that might be. Just a song. They aren’t even touching. But Michael moves awkwardly. Perhaps because they’re the only people dancing, or perhaps other reasons. And when he sees that Soledad is actually smiling, he is first surprised, and then afraid. He got himself this far into Aaron’s life but he doesn’t know where to go next. His dancing turns more erratic. Soledad sees the anxiety in Michael’s eyes, in his dragging feet, the way none of it is keeping the beat, and she immediately becomes disinterested. It was an idea, at least, she thinks. Or something. She grants him a few more bars of the song, but then puts her hand on his shoulder, more akin to comforting a child than arousing somebody for sex in a bathroom stall, and says she is going to get another drink. She doesn’t invite him back to the bar. Michael nods as she turns away. She has rolled and he will not join the circus. She orders a beer and he realizes that, at the very least, he’s gotten more people onto the dance floor. It fills around him. But a circus, he is not so sure.

***

Haley and Aaron finish their cigarettes. Neither of them so much as thinks about sex, let alone talks about it. The conversation isn’t the least bit awkward. There have been too many distractions in the past nine months: the city takes up too much headspace to make their past much of an oddity. So much so that Haley may as well just break up with Michael, but his minute stability stops her from feeling as if she is going insane. She often feels she needs to move very, very, very fast and she expects him to be there, concretely, at any moment that she happens to stop, whether that is tonight or next week. Aaron obviously has things on his mind as well. But he’s also a bit of an asshole. When they walk back into the bar, Aaron pulls out the remaining $3 that Michael gave him, lays it on the bar for a PBR, and turns away without leaving a tip—although he is in the service industry, he can’t identify. He’d say he’s in a band, even when it only draws about six people per show at Goodbye Blue Monday in Bushwick on a good night. But he also turns quickly because he is embarrassed to have used Michael’s money again, and embarrassed that he’ll likely ask Soledad for $3 from her purse in thirty minutes.

***

All five of them reconnect at the bar: Haley walking up to Soledad and the unnamed; Michael walking toward Aaron on the right. Michael orders another drink. Aaron tries to not notice how much money Michael is carrying. The girls softly chatter beneath the music. The unnamed leans in closer to Soledad and Haley. She speaks even softer beneath the music. Then softer still. Soley and Haley smile wide. And then wider still. Haley says to the unnamed, “Really, Jackie?” genuinely surprised. “Yes, please.” The three women walk to the bathroom together, as you now only see in reruns of old sitcoms, or when they do cocaine.

***

When the women return from the bathroom, they are talking so incredibly fast and Haley doesn’t even know how she got onto the subject but she’s saying, “I-went-deep-sea-fishing-with-my-uncle-last-year-and-he-caught-this-gi-norm-ous-tuna-that-was-like-this-long.” She stretches her arms as wide as possible as the girls practically cackle, and she’s saying, “Did-you-know-that-tuna-were-so-big?-I-had-no-idea-It-was-INSANE-I-thought-tuna-only-came-in-cans-but-I-guess-I’ve-had-tuna-steak-too-when-I-was-in-L.A.-with-my-ex-and-we-ate-dinner-at-this-place-on-the-ocean-where-the-menus-lit-up-like-iPads-Have-you-ever-seen-a-menu-that-actually-lit-up-like-from-behind-like-an-iPad-or-you-know-like-anything-that-lights-up-like-that?-Like-like-it-was-so-cool-I-wonder-what-Jason-is-doing-these-days-I-think-he-lives-around-here-now-Should-I-text-him?-I-shouldn’t-right?-I-kind-of-miss-him-sometimes-I-don’t-know-It’s-like-What-The-Fuck?-you-know?-” And she starts giggling almost uncontrollably, uncomfortably, and orders a gin and tonic.

***

When Haley turns back with her drink, she doesn’t suggest whether she meant to annoy Michael with her most-recent ex’s name or even knows. “Let’s do shots!” she says and turns back around to order five tequilas from the bartender. Then turns again: “Michael, I don’t have any more cash on me. Can you pay for these?”

“Why did you ord… Why don’t you just put it on your card?”

“It’s expired.”

Michael knows this isn’t true, but he pulls out his wallet. The five of them hold their shots between them and though they don’t say, “Cheers.” Haley looks at Michael and says, “You’re not looking me in the eyes. It’s bad luck!” But he barely hears her because he’s actually been looking Soledad in the eyes. Soley turns away for a moment, turns back, and he is still looking her in the eyes. She slams the tequila to break his stare. When the shot glasses are knocked back onto the bar, Haley begins giggling and holds Michael’s chin so that, now, they look each other in the eyes. “Don’t let your bad luck rub off on me,” she says, smiling innocently. He turns again to Soledad, who doesn’t realize anyone is looking at her. Neither does Aaron.

***

After thirty more minutes, it is difficult to move in the room, and Aaron turns to Soledad, not so embarrassed to ask anymore: “Can I borrow, like, five bucks?”

“Borrow?” she laughs.

“Well, you know,” he says.

Michael turns away from Haley. “Don’t give him any more money,” he says to Soledad, almost angrily, then softens only after realizing he is speaking out loud. Everyone turns to Michael to see why it’s any of his business.

“Everything cool, dude?” Aaron says, though it is sheepish.

Michael pretends to smile, now embarrassed by the circus. “I’m just kidding, dude. I’m kidding.” It’s Michael who pulls out his wallet again, putting a ten onto the bar. “For the next one, too.” An uneasiness settles between the five friends as Aaron thinks too long to slide the bill toward the bartender. “Seriously,” Michael says, “I was just kidding.” Michael picks up the bill and taps it against the bar three times, trying to get the bartender’s attention. “Get this guy a PBR,” Michael says. “Actually, make it two. I’ll have one, too.” Michael turns around and hands one of the beers to Aaron. The five of them are once more lined up along the bar. The song on the stereo is not so good this time.

Haley turns to Jackie and asks, “Is it time for another bathroom break?”

“I can’t,” Jackie says. “I don’t have anymore.”

Haley slumps against the bar.

Jackie slumps back to being unnamed.

The next song is not so good either. Not anymore. They’ve heard it played at the same dives for nine years. So all five of them lean back against the bar, watching this crowd meld and wave with its heads and shoulders. The five friends, or perhaps not friends, line up just as they were at the beginning of the night:

Soledad.

Aaron.

Michael.

Haley.

The unnamed.

______

Photo credit: Michael Cory / Foter.com / CC BY