This is what happened. Elena and her friends arrived at Barrio , the bar on Seventh Street, following the strangers who were already streaming into the building with fervor. Although it was only 9:30, the seedy, beloved bar filled quickly. The evening vibrated in front of them. It was a Thursday in the crux of October.
Elena and her roommates, the beautiful Brooke and Ruby, waited in line for ten minutes before the bouncer asked them for their IDs. Elena’s heart lurched every time she used her fake identity, which claimed her to be a twenty-three-year-old hailing from Scranton, Pennsylvania. When Ruby ordered them, Elena protested. “There’s no way in hell those will ever work,” she had argued last semester when Ruby screamed gleefully, texting her cousin to order two for each of them. But in their quiet college town, where underage drinking and excessive partying were almost required to reside, dark nostalgic college bars like Barrio did not take second glances at poorly printed licenses. Their fake IDs were scrutinized by the lazy bouncer and swiftly returned. The delighted roommates flounced into the bar.
Barrio was decorated like a dive bar just off the freeway of a highway town after the road has been closed for several years. The physical bar was slowly sinking into the floor on its left side. The shelves of alcohol behind the bartender reached the high ceiling, half-open bottles of vodka shrouded with dust from unuse. There were scant decorations on the wall above the standing tables, some ancient photos of owners from the good old days looking down on the students like patron saints. A light layer of grime lovingly encased the tables and chairs in the center of the room. Barrio’s saving grace was its sprawling space, a luxury of expanse, which was converted into a dance floor on the weekends. When the lights went out, it didn’t matter much what Barrio looked like anyways; a dance floor was a dance floor, and the students were just elated to be there, alive.
There were about forty people congregated around various tables in the bar. Elena, Ruby, and Brooke promptly rushed the bar and ordered three double vodka cranberries. Elena smirked at Brooke as she traded her card for their drinks. They made their way to a table squeezed into the corner, a sanctuary in the crowded space.
“Every time that works, I get as excited as I did the first time,” Elena gushed. Brooke laughed and missed the straw on her drink, her small stature grossly affected by their pregame. “It’s a miracle!”
Elena watched the stream of people entering the bar. Thursday nights were beloved at Barrio, a college town ritual passed down by students and legacies and urban legend itself. She saw two people from her English class enter the bar and she waved.
“You’re so popular, Ellie,” Ruby joked. Elena laughed and waved her statement out of the air. “Want me to introduce you?” Ruby scoffed and tossed her endless charcoal hair behind her, pieces falling forward to frame her face like a movie star on the set of a famed film. “What do you guys want to do for Halloween next weekend?” Ruby asked. “Is it alright if my friends come and visit us?” Brooke asked. “Which friends?” Ruby asked. “Laren and Sophie. From high school. You guys will love them, they want to go out with us. They both go to Endicott.” Ruby gasped. “Isn’t Laren the one who stole your boyfriend junior year?” Brooke rolled her eyes. “Don’t remind me,” she groaned, downing the rest of her magenta liquid. “Listen, that was so long ago. We fought about it then but we’re good now.” She shrugged. Elena nodded. “I don’t care. They sound fun. Next weekend I have to finish my marketing project before we go to the bars, though.” Ruby dismissed her with a wave. “Ellie, you’re a genius. You’re going to be saving our fucking lives in a few years. Who cares about a marketing paper? It’s not even for your major!” “It’s a project,” Elena corrected her. Ruby turned to Brooke and widened her eyes. “Can you believe her?” Brooke looked up from her phone in surprise. “Take the compliment, for once!” she yelled, exasperated. Elena was flushed and fell silent, smiling into her glass. Ruby, always holding a flame for dramatic flair, plopped her phone onto the table and sighed.
“Guys, don’t you just feel so old? Like, we’ve been out of high school for two years. I barely know anyone who still goes there since my brother graduated,” Ruby lamented. “Time is moving too fast this semester,” Brooke agreed. She turned to Elena. “Can you believe break is only a month away? We’ll be home before we know it.” Ruby twirled her hair absentmindedly. “Ellie, you’re welcome to come home with me again if you want,” she said, forcing nonchalance.
Her offer hung in the air for too long and sliced the energy in their corner. Elena took a sharp breath and forced a grin. She finished her drink. “I think the band is about to start playing. Come on!” Elena yelled, pulling Ruby and Brooke away from the table.
Art by Ember Nevins
Patrons joined the roommates in pushing the chairs and tables in front of them aside. A dance floor, open and free, appeared before them. Elena, Ruby, and Brooke swarmed the makeshift stage, packing themselves as close as possible next to strangers, waiting for the band to arrive.
The three of them stood, impatient, Elena shifting her weight from foot to foot. Her phone vibrated in the depths of her purse as the band tuned their instruments. The bar was illuminated by streams of light darting through the room. Elena’s face glowed lavender.
“How do you know him, Elena?” Ruby asked. Elena pivoted to see Ruby gesturing indiscreetly at a man who stood against the wall that was looking toward them. He was tall—tall enough that Elena could make out his face despite the strangers threatening to walk in her line of sight in the crowd. His face was young but his eyes – which were locked with Elena’s – held an unwarranted air of familiarity. Perhaps it was purely the alcohol, she mused. Elena waved and the man nodded at her and grinned. He finished his drink, placed it on the bar, and walked away. Elena turned to her friends. “I don’t,” she told them. “I’m bored! I’m going to get us more drinks! Finish that!” Brooke yelled, pointing at Ruby’s glass before weaving through the crowd. She disappeared and Elena lost her in the throngs of people. She shrugged and turned back to Ruby.
All at once, the lights dimmed and a resounding chord filled the room. The crowd pushed further toward the makeshift stage and cheered, roaring with adoration. “Who’s ready?” the guitarist yelled. Elena and Ruby grabbed each other’s hands and squeezed tight. This was what they had been looking forward to all week. The lead singer nodded and the band began to play an upbeat song raging with energy and angst. The people in Barrio became one, pulsing with the rhythm. Elena and Ruby twirled each other around their small space on the crowded floor and laughed. Brooke returned with another round of drinks. The roommates whooped with joy and toasted each other. The music ebbed with the night, drinks and dances passing through Elena. She was avidly enjoying every aspect of the revelry. The room blurred as she swayed methodically to the band’s songs. She moved through the music, charmed like a snake. Time passed (how much, Elena was unaware of) and the band ended a song on a resounding guitar solo and announced they were taking a short break. Elena turned to her roommates and found the man from the bar strolling toward her. She turned to Brooke and Ruby, wiggling her eyebrows and smiling big.
“I’ll be at the bar!” she exclaimed to them, turning to meet the man in the midst of the crowd. “Want to get a drink? I don’t have one,” she proposed. The man smiled and took her hand, guiding her through the throngs of people. They stood at the bar, trying to get the bartender’s attention. “Oliver,” the man said, reaching out to shake her hand. Elena, surprised and intrigued, shook his hand vigorously. “Elena!” she yelled. The bartender nodded at them. Elena asked for a cider and Oliver ordered too, handing the man his card. “What a gentleman,” Elena proclaimed. Her voice whistled below the conversations around them. Oliver shrugged and handed her the cider. “I try.”
Elena sipped on her drink. The cold assaulted her lips and she steadied herself on the bar. She studied Oliver as he paid for their drinks. He stood tall, with a smooth and sensible demeanor behind his posture. His olive coat turned black in the darkness and he shifted his weight from foot to foot. He turned and grinned at her. “We didn’t have to leave the dance floor, you know.” “I wanted another drink and you wanted to talk to me. No time like the present!” Elena said a bit too loudly. Oliver smirked. “Do you go to school here?” Elena asked. Oliver nodded. “Obviously. How else would I know about Barrio? I don’t think anyone other than college students would come here voluntarily,” he said.
Elena knew he was trying to make a joke, and that joke wasn’t all too funny, but she laughed anyway. She was sipping on her drink and was happy to talk to Oliver. A hand on her shoulder caused her to turn. Brooke and Ruby were behind her. “How’s everything going?” Brooke sang, but dual concern and intrigue filled her gaze. “You’ve been gone for a few minutes.” Elena realized the band had begun playing again. She turned back to Brooke and smiled reassuringly. “This is Oliver,” Elena announced. Oliver shook their hands and Elena gave Brooke a nod. She was present and she was okay. Brooke smiled in return, clearly eased.
Elena smoothed the edges of her skirt and turned to Brooke and Ruby. “Why don’t you guys go back? I’ll be there in a second,” she assured them. “I’m having a good time,” she murmured in their ears. Ruby squeezed her hand and the two of them returned to the inner depths of the crowd. “It’s nice that your friends are looking out for you. There’s some weird people out there,” Oliver remarked. Elena nodded in agreement, looking at the invisible trail they left as they reentered the dance floor.
“They’re the best. They’re like family. My sisters.” “Speaking of family, my brother owns this bar,” Oliver said. Elena’s eyes widened. “What a flex!” Oliver shrugged, but he was pleased by her reaction. “He’s twelve years older than me and bought this place with his buddies after he graduated. I grew up running around here.” Elena stared at him. “Why did you pay for drinks then, if your brother owns the bar?” Oliver laughed ruefully. “Just because he owns it doesn’t mean he gives me special treatment. He’s still my sibling. Wouldn’t yours do the same thing?”
In the distance, far but somehow nearby, Elena heard the band startup. “This is my favorite song!” she screamed. Elena pulled Oliver to the dance floor, stumbling into the crowd. They found a small nook for themselves and they danced. The lead singer moved into the crowd, punching the air with her microphone. People were screaming, like primal animals, but they were laughing too. It was an uncapturable scene, one that must be experienced wholly, and only then can it be understood. For the students in Barrio, for their little college town, this was everything. Everything was vivid. It was entirely blurry. Elena and Oliver swayed to the song. Elena was aware of the crowd pushing them toward each other, the lead singer straining to belt out a high note, the sound of yelling and cheering and love and drunkenness encapsulating the room. She was enjoying it. She was cognizant of the otherness occurring. His lips made it to hers. She pulled away, abruptly.
“I’m going to run to the bathroom,” Elena said. Stumbling toward the back wall, she burst into the bathroom, reached for the stall door, and sat in a hurry. She was relieved and yet she was still confused. Elena wasn’t stupid. She knew precisely what Oliver’s goal was. Perhaps it was something she was interested in too; she was still pondering at that moment, but nevertheless, she could at least enjoy herself regardless of what was to come next. This is what she decided. She flushed the toilet and went to wash her hands. They were heavy and stiff. She gazed up in the grungy mirror and thought, “How is this even real?” Her reflection was distorted in the streaks and grime on the mirror. Elena touched her eyelid and watched her reflection do the same. She was not connected to the woman she saw. She shook her head and pulled her eyeliner out of her purse.
Pulling the cap off unceremoniously, Elena went to reapply her makeup. She watched someone else’s hand scale her eyelid, like a mountain, and drag the pen to the side of her eye. Her reflection reworked the smudge. Elena knew the woman she was watching was drunk and was impressed with her fine motor skills at such a time. The work ceased and her makeup returned to normalcy. Elena watched, entranced, as the reflection put her makeup into her purse and returned to the mirror. Her gaze pierced Elena. She smiled. What did she know? Elena forced herself to smile back and she moseyed out of the bathroom, humming a simple song. She cut through the crowd and searched for Oliver. She found him centered, observing the crowd and sipping his drink. His eyes punctured the night and he stood as a stoic statue might.
“Sorry,” they both exclaimed. There was a reserve of worry in Oliver’s expression. “No, I’m sorry about that!” Elena yelled. Oliver hesitated. Elena smiled and took Oliver’s open hand. He smiled back at her and held her close. The music became an ocean that overtook them. Together, they rode the wave. It was effortless and free to be dancing there with someone right above the caliber of complete stranger. A fog appeared in Elena’s vision. She felt the music envelop her and lead her movement. Barrio faded away and it was just Elena. She felt pulled back by something. It was far away and hard to discern. She kept dancing.
“Elena! You’re missing a call!” Elena heard these words but she chose not to listen. The night at Barrio was merely dawning. She was dancing and she was drunk and there was nothing else. Seconds passed and then Brooke appeared, repeating the dreaded words. Elena reached out to her and enveloped her in the sanctuary of her small arms. “Brooke, dance with me!” she yelled. But Brooke pulled away. Elena found herself focusing on her roommate’s face. It was etched with worry. Elena dropped Oliver’s hand and stood limp. “Come here!” Brooke yelled, pulling Elena toward the bar. Elena stumbled but agreed to follow. “Are you okay?” Elena asked. Behind them, the crowd cheered and begged the band for one more song. “Are you?” Brooke replied. She put Elena’s face in front of Brooke’s phone. Two missed calls from Luke. Shock overflowed in her gut. Elena’s eyes snapped up and she stared at Brooke. “Why did he call you?” Brooke paused. “I think you should go outside.”
A moment passed. Elena was there, but her mind was murky. She had no coherence, no single thought. She could only gather missing puzzle pieces that had no definition, no relevance, no complete image at the end. Two calls from Luke. She made her way to the door, miles away. She pushed past the edge of the crowd, the drifters who were talking at the edges of the room, the couples hooking up in the corners. Elena threw herself into the door and found herself engulfed in the frigidity of an early autumn morning. She wrenched her phone from her purse, walking around Barrio to its sordid back parking lot. Her only company remained the moon. She opened her phone. Seven missed calls and one voicemail. All from Luke. She swore and redialed.
A young man answered the phone. A voice Elena loved like her own filled the silence. Elena’s body filled with relief, then dread.
“What happened?” she asked, even though she knew. The voice struggled to answer her question. It was the answer she expected. Elena’s eyes were heavy and she struggled to keep them open as she answered. Her head spun and she had the urge to retch. “Fuck. Luke, are you sure?” She leaned against a white SUV to steady her fickle legs. Elena closed her eyes and pressed her fingers to her temple. The alcohol coursed through her, tempting her mind to drift. Would you blame her for drifting at a time like this?
A sharp tone brought her back, drawing her into the lonely parking lot, her bare legs shivering in the cold. And then, through the fog, an accusation: “Are you drunk, Elena?” Luke snapped. The venom in his question brought tears to prickle the edges of her eyes. She slouched further against the car. “I’ll be home first thing tomorrow,” she slurred, staggering toward the front of Barrio. She cut through the bushes and flowers adorning the facade which had wilted and folded against themselves in the crisp October air. “I’m so sorry,” she added hurriedly. She let it hang in the air as she hung up.
Elena’s mind began to clear. She began to focus on the insurmountable number of tasks in front of her: find Brooke and Ruby. Explain the situation. Call an Uber. No, walk and drink in the cold harsh air, savor its pain in her throat, and try to sober up. Take a cold shower. Pack a bag for a week—two weeks? A month? Then try to sleep this treacherous night off. And then, after a moment of hesitation, go back, she concluded. She shook the terror off her shoulders and flung open the door into Barrio.
Elena dashed to the bar, at the edge of the crowd, and scanned for her friends.
Frantically, she searched, but her height cursed her and she couldn’t see beyond the strangers in front of her. She ran to the back of the room, by the stage. The music blared in her ears and her body vibrated with the bass. They were not there. Panic bubbled in Elena’s throat and her heart fought its enclosement. She ran into the crowd, pushing people and running into strangers. Someone grabbed her hand.
“Hey, what happened?” Oliver yelled. The sound was overwhelming and Elena could not focus. “I need to find my friends. I have—I have to leave here,” she replied, grabbing his arm. She turned in the crowd, frantic. “Go. I can find them and let them know,” Oliver replied. The worry in his eyes struck Elena. “Will you?” Oliver nodded, and Elena believed him. Oliver walked with her toward the door. “Are you okay walking back?” Elena nodded. “I’ll text Brooke and Ruby too,” she told him. Oliver looked through her. “I hope everything is okay.” His sympathy grounded Elena and she felt a sob of gratitude rise through her throat. “Thank you. My father just died.”
Elena squeezed his arm and stepped out of the bar. She felt a sense of urgency to get home, but nothing could be done until the night ended and she was sober once again. Adjusting her purse, she found her footing on the sidewalk and walked toward the street. The night was not asleep but it began to wean, people swaying and strolling toward their rides home. They danced along the sidewalk, a dance Elena did not know and could not try. Elena walked a few blocks and took off her heels. She trekked barefoot, being careful to nurse the blisters forming at the creases of her heels. Her mind raced and yet there was nothing to ponder. “My father is dead,” she thought. Elena could not bring herself to say it aloud. Her body shook with dread as she walked. Each step took her closer to the next task. She lost track of time, focusing solely on the horizon. Elena stared straight ahead. Her purse jangled at her side, her phone now silent, a silence so loud that her ears rang.
Her racing thoughts guided her through campus and half an hour later, her apartment building came into view. Elena pushed her way into the building. She trekked up the stairs and fumbled with the keys for a bit. She took an unsolid breath, then unlocked the door. There was much to do. The drive back home was a long one.