by Sarah Jane Millar
I’ve just spent an hour and a half googling someone I met at a bar over a decade ago, half a world away from where I currently sit behind a desk in a rented room in the rainy Alentejo hills, listening to bells symphonise from the necks of passing sheep. I was told upon arrival last week that a classical guitarist will be joining our rank at the residency in a few days and I’ve only ever known one classical guitarist. (I’ve also been doing contentious battle with writers’ block since I got here so in lieu of words have committed to daydreaming with all the professionalism I have so far denied my chosen craft.)
Known is a bit of reach. Met. I’ve only ever met one classical guitarist. He looked like a genetically improved Colin Farrell too, which, in 2008, was quite an achievement. He tied his hair in a deft knot at the nape of his neck and wore a flat cap with superlative ease. He had something like a 5:30 shadow and dark eyes that smouldered and brooded and occasionally smiled without the concern of his lips. He was from Argentina. I mean, he was from Argentina.
Out for the night and starting slowly. It was a weeknight. We’d only been living in our fathers’ apartments on the upper east side for a few months but it was long enough to recognise Friday and Saturday nights for what they were, metonyms for bridge and tunnel. (The young assimilate so quickly, so readily.) We loved a Thursday. Give us your Sundays. We wore these long nights to work the following mornings as uniform of the fresh and able. Cheap coffee from the guy on the corner chased redemptive shots of wheatgrass and we’d glide behind our desks at 9:30, brighter eyed than our bosses and on call to perform all the vulgar acts that assistants are called upon to perform. Weekends happened too, obviously, but they had higher stakes and lower odds. Generally, those were the nights best forgotten and conveniently they most often were.
I think we must have ducked in out of the rain on our way somewhere else because there’s no other good reason we’d have walked into a Second Avenue southern comfort restaurant part-owned by a popstar neither of us liked, ironically or otherwise. Chloe probably ordered a bourbon and I probably silently questioned her stomach for it as I sucked back beer from a bottleneck and scraped at the foil with my thumbnail. He was sitting alone at the end of the bar looking like a scene from all those movies we’ve all seen that make us fall for the guy sitting alone at the end of a bar. Seat yourself in the shadows, void your face of all enthusiasm, throw on a leather jacket, and wait for women to drop to their knees. A beautiful illusion of melancholic virtue. We will project depth and intellect and complexity, provided the angles of jaw and shoulder and brow align favourably. (The final caveat is my own, it isn’t universally observed.)
He’s looking, she said. He keeps looking, she said. She was right. I glanced, he held my gaze until I dropped it to go outside for a cigarette; discomfort disguised with disinterest, as standard. When I came back in, her thick shock of blonde was mid-flip and she was doing that thing where she drops her voice and purrs through a cloud of musk and lust. But it was me he kissed in the back of a Chelsea lounge that night, me that woke the next morning to see a text from a number I’d saved a few hours earlier as Johnny, Argentina. Chloe and I were square, by the way. She’d already done the Argentinian thing.
I remember waking up in his apartment the first time, sitting bolt upright the way you do when you’re not quite sure why your bed is shoved into a corner of your room, before realising it’s not your room at all and you just clocked your head on a guitar that was hanging above the bed. So that’s what I think of when I hear the words classical guitar. I think of five guitars suspended from the ceiling of a tiny walk-up studio in Lennox Hill with handwritten sheet music stacked on the floor and on shelves and scattered on a table wedged between two folding chairs. I slipped out the foot of the bed, left him sleeping and didn’t say goodbye. He still looked pretty.
I called Chloe early that morning, woke her up and asked her to meet me at Burger Heaven for breakfast in 10 or 15, depending on how far up 1st Avenue I was. Wait, no, 2nd Avenue. Oh, that bar we met him in is on his block. I asked her to bring me sunglasses, the biggest she had. My sleepless night and I were shameless but there seemed no need to gloat. Burger Heaven was equidistant from each of our apartments and we liked that there we could order the kind of breakfasts you can only order in New York, like: half a blueberry muffin, toasted. With a side of cottage cheese, but only if the cottage cheese is low-fat, if not then I don’t want the blueberry muffin I want an English muffin. With butter. Actually just the English muffin. Half. Toasted on one side. Or: three scrambled egg whites (no toast, no oil, no butter, super dry, no salt) and a sliced tomato (with salt). On a separate plate. And a grapefruit to share. Halved. Two coffees. Black. Two waters. One ice, one definitely no ice. At Burger Heaven we embodied the little old ladies we knew we’d one day become. Caffeinated, mildly entitled and enabled in all of our afflictions by our adopted hometown. She asked for the grisly details and got them but I know she didn’t believe the part about the guitars. She still doesn’t. At this point I’m not even sure I believe me, but the image is so clear. I went through the looking glass one way or another. Truth is kind of irrelevant that way.
“We wore these long nights to work the following mornings as uniform of the fresh and able.”
I remember it all becoming very intense, very quickly, and it all coming to an abrupt end but I’m not entirely sure how or why. Given his cultural bent for heady romance, I think he probably made it clear that he was into me and I became repulsed by the liability. Eventually, I moved down to SoHo, into a railroad junior one-bed with tin ceilings and a half tub. It was a fifth floor walkup with stairs so steep yet shallow I could only safely manage them barefoot. 349 West Broadway, between Broome and Grand. A solid brick wall stood at arm’s length from my bedroom window, I had a baseball on my keychain and I didn’t care that I was forever choking on Holland Tunnel exhaust. I was twenty-two, I lived downtown and had taken to drinking vodka soda on the rocks with the kind of license only afforded to the young, the untried and the unproven. When adulthood felt within reach, I’d pull the Style section of yesterday’s New York Times from a neighbour’s doormat and read it on the fire escape in pyjamas and an overcoat. When that all felt too treacherous, I’d take the F-train to 63rd Street and place myself under the watchful eye of the men in hats and white gloves at the apartment I’d left empty on Park Avenue.
We had just left my place and were walking up towards Houston, heading for the village. It was winter already but it was mild and I remember wearing leather shorts with opaque tights and platform boots under a black wool cape that drifted behind me as I moved. Body cloaked and exposed, an index of my social self. I heard a voice call my name but kept walking. Sarah doesn’t carry the clout to turn heads in a big city. We stopped when the voice added Chloe to its desperate bid. And there he was, bathed in the acid yellow glow of Cipriani Downtown’s awning. Just standing there, calling my name, months after I’d stopped returning his calls. And he still looked pretty. He said he’d searched for me in every bar on the upper east side. He said he thought he’d never see me again. And he just walked away from the people he was with, took my hand and said over his shoulder, this is the girl that disappeared. Ten years ago I was forever on the brink of vanishing.
It all felt very intense, very quickly, again. Much more so now that the city had twisted fate in our favour. Because there was also an Argentinian restaurant on West Broadway between Broome and Grand. He was there so often they knew him by name. Just downstairs and two doors south. I sat on a high stool at the bar in that restaurant while we waited for his steak on a sunny afternoon and listened as he told me his family bred polo ponies. He had a sister. His father was elegant and dressed like Prince Charles. He couldn’t wait for me to meet him. We’d visit or he’d visit. His father was going to like me, very much. I don’t remember saying anything at all. He seemed to know so much more than me. About life. He seemed to understand it.
Johnny had a job at an investment bank that he hated but some degree of nepotism had been involved in its getting and he had too much respect for his father to quit. Sons have all this respect for their fathers. Daughters just don’t want to disappoint daddy. That he maintained a finance job as a twenty-something through the 2008 crash strikes me now as proof positive of the power of detachment, but at the time it didn’t occur to me as notable, but for the tragedy of it all. This beautiful face with a beautiful gift trapped in a midtown high rise, leaving the office for lunch every day because he refused to eat at his desk like a desperate rat in a cage. These sad little men with their Tupperware. He spoke like a revolutionary. (Very stimulating).
Johnny had studied composition at Berklee College of Music. He was good. At least, it sounded impressive when he plucked one down from above my head and closed his eyes, and back then I’d trained myself not to be impressed by much at all. That he could write music but worked at a bank was more incongruity than I could take. Like watching somber white carriage horses parked up alongside pretzel vendors and caricaturists on the edge of Central Park. The thought, even now, devastates me to the point of failure.
But I never let him spend the night. I always made him leave, even if dawn was already close enough to touch. At first I think he thought it was funny, a kind of kiss-off with a wink. A coltish whim he could gently break and bridle. But when the novelty wore off it just made him angry and indignant and probably confused. I can’t imagine I’d been adamant about much else. He was all hunger and fury and heartache and I’d just let the heat rise until I felt like shattering mercury and slammed the door.
Google gave me nothing, but then I had nothing to offer. If I ever learned his last name I didn’t have cause to register it. All I knew of him were the things he told me and the ten digit phone number I reached him on before I deleted Johnny, Argentina. Ten years ago that was all it took to walk away. Now everybody is knowable, wholly and instantly. And when they leave, there are digital footsteps to follow deep into a rabbit hole of regret and despair. I’d know which bank he worked for, I’d know the location of his family farm, I’d know how old he is, I’d know his last name and I’d certainly know the face of every girl who hadn’t tossed this beautiful Argentine out into the cold, New York, winter’s night. But I don’t. And the popstar closed his Second Avenue restaurant, and the Argentinian place on West Broadway is shuttered, and I left New York just in time.
The frustration I feel today looking out onto a dreary horizon, presented with the search result of a completely unknowable stranger, is likely the very same frustration I presented to this stranger who tried to know me then. I gave nothing away out of the fear that there might be nothing left over to keep for myself. That’s how it all ended for good, with a text from him that read, ‘Nothing can be expected from you, right? You’ll never show your hand.’
I read like the brick wall outside my bedroom window. But the threat of being seen before you know how to look at yourself is a terrifying thing. And there was nowhere to hide. He was from Argentina. There is safety in not knowing, in vanishing. In strangers being strangers, still.
Sarah Jane Millar
Sarah Jane Millar is a writer, currently living in London.