We shared a bar stool, she and I. She, sitting facing the bar, ordering a snack and a drink from her buddy tending bar, while I leaned against the back, facing outwards, watching the local stand-up banter with the singer/songwriter-turned-podcaster-turned-failed politician who hosted that portion of the evening.
Hours earlier and a few miles away, Ben Gibbard had helpfully reminded a packed Paramount Theatre that the glove compartment is a modern misnomer, and those words resonated in the bar that was inaccurately named as well. Hotel Albatross, housed in a Ballard space that had been reinvented as many times as the night’s host in the past decade, is a fine place to drink at, but not one where you can lay your head.
As the comedy portion of the evening wrapped up, a local trio known as Prom Queen took to the makeshift stage so small that the guitarist had to stand behind one of the speakers. An adjacent barstool opened up as patrons settled their tabs and left, and I shifted over, next to my friend.
This was night two of a neighborhood music festival named after a local stalwart became an icon because she just wanted to be left alone. The night before, we had made the rounds between the three venues, frequently waylaid by encounters with her friends. After it took us half an hour to walk three blocks, I suggested she be named the mayor of the neighborhood, and she said her ex had once called her its queen.
The Postal Service started here.
There’s a story I heard Ben Gibbard tell years ago, while introducing the one-off collaboration that inspired Give Up, about trying to explain the song’s origin to one of the singers who inspired it. It’s funny to hear, and it’s funnier to think of, how the track that served as the origin story for one of the most beloved albums for a generation remains obscure enough to have to be explained in such a way.
And yet, it makes perfect sense.
Years ago, at a venue blocks from my home, I stared across the room at her, willing myself to action. Or trying, at least.
Go talk to her, I thought to myself while sipping liquid courage. Say something. Just say hi, even. She’s stunning, and you’ll hate yourself if you don’t.
The voice in my head was insistent, but outweighed by the perpetual cowardice in my heart. Self-doubt won out, and I asked myself, What would I even say to her? even though I wanted one of the t-shirts she was selling.
I’d see her around town, always at shows, sometimes even her own. We had mutual friends, and I’d hear stories. How she had one of the few childhoods that, by consensus, was even rougher than my own. How she had a kid who was surprisingly old, considering how young she looked. How her friends rallied to help her meet her favorite band, the one whose music inspired her to live despite the odds against her.
We were officially introduced at a low point for many of the people involved. Thanksgiving, 2011. Five women and me, karaokeing in a divey Chinese restaurant. My friend who invited me feared her impending 40th. I was reeling from a breakup, one woman had just decided to leave her husband, and another was refusing a summons to a far-flung suburb from a guy she had decided to end things with. We sang, we drank, and none of us conquered a damn thing. Commiseration won the night.
Years ago, I would have dreamed of a night like last Saturday in Ballard. Her, me, drinks, good music. But that ancient crush long ago faded into friendship, and we instead spent the night comparing notes on romantic failures. She had left my birthday party to meet up with a promising prospect, but had spent the weeks since obsessing over the signs he wasn’t over his ex. I told her of the week that had been, how I’d been on edge after running into two women I had previously dated in three days, as I waited for the inevitable third. These things come in threes.
She complained about her perceived physical flaws, and I assured her, as best I could, that guys don’t care. We don’t even notice these things until someone points them out, at which point, they become all we can see. Some of my favorite things about women I’ve dated have been things they hated about themselves most, but trying to convince them of that was always a losing battle. The flaws she cited are ones I haven’t seen, ones I probably never will, so I could only argue on philosophical grounds.
The lights came on. The bar closed down, and I walked her home before calling an Uber for myself. As I rode across town, I gazed out the window at the hills of the city, illuminated by street lights, and thought, for the first time in a while, that maybe this place was right.
Maybe not, but maybe.