HIT: A Memoir
of Blue Collars, Bars and Bad Boys
I walked back to the dingy Tenderloin bar. The cops were gone. They had driven away with Matt handcuffed in their back seat. The ambulance was gone, too. The paramedics had offered to drive me to nearby St. Francis, but I’d refused and they hadn’t insisted. The streets were quiet for a Thursday night. With closing time approaching, the din in the bar had dropped to an indistinct murmur, and the jukebox was silent. Maybe the drinkers had run out of cash. I went to the end of the bar where a glass of red wine sat waiting for me already. Next to it was my orange leather wallet and the iPhone Matt had given me for my birthday just a few months earlier. My black fleece jacket was draped across the bar stool. My glasses were sitting on the bar. They were cracked in two but, nearsighted as I am, I put them on.
Courtney, the 20-something, tattooed bartender, saw me and walked over. “That’s everything,” she said, pointing at my things. “Are you okay? I poured you some wine. You look like you need it.”
Clutching the stemmed glass with shaking hands, I took a swallow, but tasted nothing. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my left cheek. Could it really be that swollen? “Courtney,” I blurted. “What the hell happened here tonight? Can you tell me?”
Courtney had worked at the Nitecap for nearly two years. We weren’t friends outside the bar, but we were friendly. The night I celebrated my birthday here, she had rearranged her schedule to serve my friends and me free drinks and pizza delivered from down the street. About 30 people had showed up and I had given everyone gardenias to pin on their shirts. The Nitecap smelled more like a flower shop than a bar that night. Afterward, I thanked Courtney with a $100 tip.
Now, I sat listening quietly, stunned, as she told me what she had witnessed. My next swallow of wine burned going down. I had a lump in my throat, but no tears. I never cry.
The bar had been crowded with regulars when I first arrived. There was Leroy, the elderly neighborhood guy, sitting in his usual spot under the photos of himself and of a dog named after him, both of which held esteemed spots above the bar. And “the Warden” was there, the 70-something woman who claimed to be a former San Quentin prison guard. And Heather, who lived downstairs from me at The Hamilton; and Ariel, the unlikely bouncer, a skinny blonde kid who always kept a close eye on Courtney and everyone else. And others.
They were all gone now, except for two guys playing pool. I didn’t know them, but they had been among the crowd who had yelled and threatened and surrounded Matt and physically threw him out of the bar earlier. Now, when they saw me come back inside, they didn’t say a word. They avoided even looking at me. It was like I wasn’t there, like I didn’t exist. What happens now, I thought. What am I supposed to do? I needed something and I didn’t know what.
“Are you okay?” Courtney was dragging a stained white cloth across the bar.
“No,” I said, grabbing my stuff. “I think I need to go home.”
My head hurt and my legs felt rubbery as I walked out onto O’Farrell Street and down the block to my apartment. I didn’t want to be alone but I didn’t know what to do about it. I called my brother, Brian. He didn’t answer. Of course, he didn’t. It was 3 a.m. in Milwaukee. I didn’t even try my other brother. He was vacationing in the Virgin Islands, where it was even later. I took the elevator to the 21st floor and knocked on Janie’s door, quietly at first, then louder when she didn’t answer. Finally, she opened up, wearing pearly pink pajamas. Of all my friends, only Janie, a classy architect from Texas, would wear real silk to bed.
“Oh my God,” she gasped, staring at my face, which I still hadn’t seen in a mirror. “What happened to you? Come in, come in. Scotch or tequila?”
Now, at last, I couldn’t hold back tears. I hate tequila. “Scotch,” I blubbered as she hustled towards her liquor cabinet.
“What do you need? What can I do? Let me make up the couch. You’ll sleep here,” Janie said. My crying was quickly getting out of control. I couldn’t catch my breath. So much for no tears.
I shuffled to the kitchen table. “I want my mom.”
She handed me her phone and I dialed my parents’ new house in central Florida. They had retired there less than a year ago. I knew that a middle-of-the-night phone call is every parent’s worst nightmare, but I didn’t feel like I had a choice. I had to talk to someone who loved me. And I had to do it now.
As I listened to the phone ringing, I remembered another emotionally charged phone call I had made, in 1987, back when I was 17, my first call home from basic training. Before joining the Air Force, I had never been on a plane, never spent the night away from home. never done my own laundry or balanced a checkbook, never met a black girl or a Jewish girl. I remembered the heat and humidity of San Antonio in August stifling me as I stood in line, waiting for one of the precious few phone booths. I dialed collect, praying that my mom would be home. When she answered I opened my mouth to say hi, but nothing came out. I just stood there picturing her in the kitchen, a dish towel in one hand, the phone with the impossibly long cord in the other.
Then: “Hello?” she said. “Kim?” I hadn’t said a word or made a sound, but she knew it was me.
That time, though, she was expecting my call. Not this time, 25 years later. The phone went on ringing and ringing. No surprise there. It was past 4 a.m. in Florida.
Finally mom picked up the phone. ”Hello?” she said groggily.
“Mom,” I croaked. “Matt beat me up.”
And that was all I could get out for the moment. I was crying too hard. I handed the phone to Janie who explained what little she knew. I couldn’t hear what my mom was asking, only Janie’s answers.
“Yes, she’s in my apartment.”
“Yes, she’s safe.”
“Yes, I think they arrested him.”
I heard the words, but they didn’t feel like they could that have any possible connection to me. Women like me don’t get beat up in bars by ex-boyfriends--do they? Women like me are smart and worldly and well-traveled. We come from good families and we nurture good friends and we have good jobs and earn good money and thrive. We don’t date the kind of men who hit women. Domestic violence? That’s a cause. We donate money to defeat it. We attend fundraisers about the issue, we organize political rallies. We feel sorry for the girlfriends and wives of the rappers, the professional athletes, the meth-smoking trailer trash. We’re feminists, we support the victims. Or at least we say we do, but, secretly, we wonder how on earth those women ended up with those men. We ask ourselves: why does she go back to him? And, without even being aware of it, quite--we judge. At least I did. I wanted to shake those poor women by both shoulders and encourage them to stick up for themselves, demand better, rise above.
That night, in Janie’s apartment, I found myself plunked down at the beginning of a shamefully well-trodden road – a road worn down by too many women before me. I was battered and beaten. I was a victim. I was one of those women.
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