Sadie (not her real name), a girl I had known in college, was coming into town, and she messaged me about meeting up. We had taken two classes together one summer, which meant being together all day for four days a week, and we had a few more classes together the following semester. I was looking forward to seeing her again.
I was also looking forward to her seeing the “new me.” She knew I was no longer religious. We weren’t very close, but by then I’d “come out” on Facebook, and she saw the changes. We had chatted about it a bit. She was a fun, outgoing, adventurous girl. Being around her and her friends with their irreverence and general enjoyment of life always gave me a thrill.
After a round of complicated attempts to figure out her schedule, she only had one night free and invited me to hang out with some of her friends at a bar in Brooklyn. I was down with that.
I got to the bar a little early. I always do that. It’s a habit I picked up from my father: calculate how long it’ll take to get there, add fifteen minutes on for potential delays, and then keep sneaking five minutes onto the time “just in case.” I wasn’t terribly early, though.
I went into the bar. I was assaulted by posters and figureheads on the wall. I felt like I had walked into a horror movie.
This was not my first time in a bar. But it looked nothing like the bars I’d been to. There was an actual horror movie playing silently, projected onto a white sheet that rippled and made the images even eerier.
I swallowed hard and looked around. I didn’t recognize anyone. I hesitated, thought about getting a drink but then just skulked at the edges of the room. (I guess I fit into the horror theme.)
By the time Sadie walked through the door, I was so relieved I nearly catapulted myself at her. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t notice how strange she was acting, how glazed her eyes were…
We all got beers. Again, unlike the beers I’d gotten at other bars, these were in cans. Not draft, and not bottles. With my limited knowledge of bars, I couldn’t parse the meaning of that.
Not that a cheap bar is inherently bad, but maybe, if I’d been able to put together the decor and the vibe and the cheap beer and realize this was not a place I wanted to be.
But Sadie was here, and I wanted to spend time with her. So I put aside my misgivings, blocked out my surroundings, and focused on Sadie and her friends.
That turned out not to be much better. Sadie’s friend Brad (not his real name) didn’t recognize me, though we’d been in college together. Sadie reminded him who I was, and then said “She used to not be allowed to touch men.” That sparked Brad’s interest, and he jokingly put his hand on mine. I laughed. It wasn’t funny, but I could see why people would find that funny.
But then he left his hand there, and kept eyeing me as everyone continued talking. I felt like the pure little sheep being eyed by the hungry wolf. I drew my hand away and angled myself away from him so I wouldn’t meet his eyes.
Eventually, some people wanted to smoke, so we headed outside. We carried our beers past the big sign on the door that said “DON’T TAKE ANY DRINKS OUTSIDE.” Sadie and her friends had been chatty with the bartender earlier and he obviously knew them, so I figured they could break the rules a bit and he wouldn’t care.
That illusion was shattered when we heard police sirens and a cop car pulled up outside the small gated area where we sat drinking.
Sadie started screaming and crying. “They can’t take my ID, they’re going to arrest me!” Turns out there was a warrant out for her arrest. She had stolen a car in order to try and kill herself. The police, rather than taking care of her, had given her a ticket. But she missed her court date. (The details of this are fuzzy. In retrospect, her story was fuzzy because of the beer and drugs, which she had obviously taken before she showed up at the bar.)
The police came into the gates after a few minutes of just sitting in their car, while my heart beat so fast and so loud I almost couldn’t breathe.
They asked for IDs. I had left my bag inside. I asked one of the officers if I could get it. She sneered. “And what, go out the back? No, you stay here. Give me your ID.”
“But I don’t have it! It’s inside!”
Brad offered to go inside and get it for me. He hadn’t brought a drink out with him, so the officer let him go inside.
I still had no idea what we had done wrong.
Turns out, Brad was eager to go back inside because he would then be able to dump the joints he was carrying.
This was not my idea of a fun night.
The officers took all our IDs and went back to their car. Sadie continued crying about how they were going to arrest her. I sat in the corner of the bench, paralyzed with shock and fear. This seemed normal to everyone else. I asked Brad what was going on, but his helpful response was simply “Don’t worry, it’s fine.”
After an eternity, the officers came back and returned our IDs along with tickets. The officer who gave me mine said “Here’s your ticket” and then asked if I understood.
“No, I don’t understand. What’s this ticket for?”
The sneer again, and then “Open container. The bar doesn’t have a license for outside, and we get complaints from all the neighbors about the noise when you all take your drinks outside. We’ve been doing sweeps of this bar for the past few weeks. You have to stay inside!”
“I didn’t even know there’s a law about that…”
“Not knowing is no excuse.” She turned and was about to walk away.
“Wait – what do I do about this now?”
“Pay the ticket,” she said impatiently. “Or don’t, and go to your court date.”
They left, and we all went back inside. I wanted to leave, I was desperate to just take my things and go. But now that I knew that Sadie was suicidal, I didn’t want my departure to be the cause of another attempt. So I stayed for another ten or fifteen minutes, then said goodbye to everyone and left.
I rode the train home in a daze. When I got home, I walked past my roommates in the living room, closed the door to my room, and immediately broke down in wracking sobs. I couldn’t even sit down on the bed, or crumple to the floor. My roommates rushed in and found me bent over, arms folded and pressed over my stomach and barely breathing.
Before I left the Orthodox community, the narratives of “those who left” was about this kind of night – crazy, psychedelic lights and throbbing music, brushes with the police as commonplace as using the bathroom.
I was always terrified of those narratives, of the feeling of being lost. That kept me from leaving for a while. When I had not-quite-left but started hanging out with friends from grad school, I saw that this narrative is only one among many, and that I could choose another that felt safer and more comfortable to me.
Unfortunately, I didn’t know yet how to gauge what fell into my comfort level, what pushed the boundaries slightly and was thrilling and exciting, and what was so outside of my comfort limits that I should get out immediately.
That bar fell into the third category. I was uncomfortable from the moment I walked in, but I trusted that my friend wouldn’t invite me to the kind of place I would never go to.
By now, if I did find myself in that situation, I probably wouldn’t have to leave. I could navigate that without feeling like the walls are closing in on me, because I understand the dynamics more. But back then, when everything felt “off” and I couldn’t get a grip on things, I should have left immediately.
I learned a few things from that episode:
- There actually is a law against carrying open containers of alcohol outside.
- If something doesn’t feel right, trust your gut.
- Sadie was not my friend.