Frieda’s eyes are gentle and pleading as they look down at you. Quietly, bravely, you try again.
“It’s late,” you coo, desperately hoping she does not find your request — or worse, you — boring. You have allowed the hazy glow of street lamps over cobbled streets, several bottles of red wine, and that grown up feeling ever expanding behind your chest to propel you through the night, but now it past midnight, past curfew. “Let’s go home.”
Frieda is tall, one year your senior, an expert in the use of a slow sigh. She watches you closely then uses her chin to point toward a small bar on the corner, smiling as though you share an intimate secret. You, each minute more sober than the last and feeling un-adventurous, un-sophisticated, and very, very un-cool, give in immediately.
You take a deep breath, remind yourself that you are spending this year away to try new things, to break free of words like small and town. Here, you are someone. And you might not know who that someone is, but you sure as hell know that she is not the girl you left in Upstate New York. And so you smile back at her, valiant, feel something warm spread through you as you return her gaze, let her lead you toward a small bar with smoky windows.
The air inside the bar hangs humid and there is little standing room, though there are few customers. You each order a glass of white, the wine so cold you can feel it travel down your throat. The bar itself seems a reverie, covered in a finish of honey, bits of ash sprinkled throughout. Frieda chats animatedly with the bartender, his voice deep and phlegmy with a Northern accent.
You order another drink and reach for your purse when you are woken, suddenly, from this dusky dream with the realization you are out of money. Frantic, you motion Frieda toward the bathroom. “I don’t have any money left, I’m sorry,” you begin as Frieda laughs, “I don’t have any money either.” Then, catching your panic, “t'inquiète pas. I’ll take care of it.”
She walks slowly back to the bar, all doe eyes and vintage clothes.
“Monsieur,” she said, “je suis tellement désolée, mais on n’a pas d’argent. Qu’est-ce qu’on peut faire?” You can’t remember how to breathe. “Mes cheres mademoiselles,” he says slowly, his deep voice dramatically pronouncing each syllable, “je vais vous donnez du vin gratuit, si vous écoutez a mon chant.”
You watch amazed as he begins to sing, his booming baritone filling the small bar, spilling out onto the dark and early morning. He sings in Italian, in Russian, French, and German. Between songs, he jokes, tells of another life, of a dream to sing opera, of a father long passed, of the bar, left him.
And just like that, you fall in love.
As he sings, he fills your glass to the brim, and you fall in love with each drop spilled, with the way the wine catches the light. You are in love with everything around you, with the drunk half asleep in the corner, with this grim little bar, its horrible dark toilet, with your ill fitting top, cheap and garish shoes.
And oh, Frieda! Your heart could burst. This brave and lovely girl who, with the permission of a wink, allowed you to sneak out of the house, dismiss curfew, and parade from bar to bar with a strut you didn’t know you had. As the the bartender’s aria comes to a close, you giggle, clap, exchange glances with one another, silently agree to ignore the idea of sunrise, prepare for another song.
Kristen Zory King is a writer and artist facilitator based in Washington, DC. She is a recent recipient of an Arts and Humanities Fellowship through the DC Commission on Arts and Humanities, a 2018-2019 5th Woman Fellow and a Spring 2019 Resident at 202Creates. A passionate advocate for the arts and community, Kris is the founder of MoonLit, an organization that aims to "creatively connect community through low-cost literary programming in DC, Baltimore, and Virginia." Recent work can be found (or is forthcoming) in Electric Lit, Past-Ten, District Lit, SWWIM, and Lipstick Party Magazine among others. Learn more or be in touch at www.kristenzoryking.com.
Kris encourages you to donate to the Free Minds Book Club, a DC based organization that “empowers young inmates to write the next chapter in their lives” through “books, creative writing, and peer support.” Learn more and support at www.freemindsbookclub.org.