Lone Star bottles were a dollar that night, and a leather-clad, hair-shaking woman howled “Whipping Post” on the stage. You took down the grit of her voice in your beer, swallowed it like you had no idea what was coming and liked it that way. You’d been there since seven, and he ducked in sometime around the second set, when the singer dared some Joplin— pulling it off the way men yank at their ties—until everybody was undone. Before you knew it, it was last call and the red-blue-greens of the stage blurred in the smoke-haze. He was a white shirt and jeans, hard boots and grease-stains, a couple of look-you-in-the-eye questions. He’d been sipping next to you for five or six songs when he nodded toward the door, drawled about the two of you getting out of there.
All these years later, there are only a few things you remember about him: He was a mechanic at the Chevron across town. He was finishing up his MBA at the university where you were finishing your PhD. He had a tattoo on his back you traced with your index finger as he nodded off in your bed.
He set a twenty down on the bar to cover all the bottles, yours and his, and you slapped a five on top of it to show that you, too, could handle things. The bartender—in black jeans you’d never wear—shouted something at him about bringing her car by in the morning, and he winked, too easily, said something you couldn’t make out but whatever it was, it ended in darlin’.
Pulling out of the parking lot in your Jeep, you tumbled over the curb and the man whose name you don’t remember held on, his hands braced on the dashboard. You were driving like every song that woman sang, like you had something to prove because you took one business class in college and never did learn how to change the oil in your car. But deep down—and you can say this now because you know—it was the PhD you were trying to outrun, undo. Because you understood bartenders in black jeans and smoky-voiced strangers better than any line of critical theory. Your father once told you that you wanted a man who could take his tie off and have a good time. Maybe.
Maybe all you ever wanted was the grit of oil under nails, the dust of an unpaved road, and no ties between you and the man in your bed. Maybe what you want is black smudges on your hips and the view from a windshield.
And maybe you’ve been tied to a whipping post all your life, downing one cheap beer after another because it’s been fifteen years since that night, and you’re still tied to nobody, not even yourself.