A Good Mystery
My apartment was on the same East Village block as Cellar Door, Lisa’s bar, and I often walked past after work. I’d usually see Lisa outside the bar, smoking, drinking red wine, and reading a murder mystery with a blanket on her lap, seemingly savoring a quiet moment before her night shift began. She’d smile as I walked by, and I’d smile back. It went this way for six months, until one day she yelled: When the hell are you going to join me? We became fast friends after that, and I quickly learned that Lisa was a killer. Or wanted to be. She refilled my wine glass so stealthily, so sneakily, I half-died a dozen times. I had no idea how much Cab Franc I’d consumed until the room spun. She was generous. Too generous.
“F” is for Fugitive
Lisa was an avid reader—newspapers, magazines, biographies, tarot, mindreading (she knew what wine I wanted before I did), historical fiction, but mysteries were her favorite. Sue Grafton paperbacks littered the bar. I love a good mystery, Lisa said in her gravel voice. Sometimes we’d take reading breaks, both of us sipping wine, quietly reading at opposite ends of the bar. Alone together. She even read my graduate school application, screaming at me for selling myself short. It was a quiet night at the bar when she read and edited all three pages of my personal statement, sighing, cursing, swirling red wine in her glass, and marking up my papers with her red Sharpie.
Blink Once for Yes
Lisa loved when the bar was full, and she kept the snacks flowing all night for the regulars. But she was brutally selective about who she allowed in, much to the bar owner’s chagrin. We never met Mark, the owner, but we heard his voice on the other end of Lisa’s ancient flip-phone as they discussed delivery schedules. Sometimes there was a strangely plaintive tone in Lisa’s voice, but most of the time, she was buoyant. She loved to sing and dance, and she made me dance, too. On the rare night when all the regulars were in the bar, she’d lock the doors and we’d dance until 5am. Music bounced around the brick walls, up to the high ceilings. Our heat and laughter fogged Cellar Door’s windows. One of those nights, Lisa dragged me onto the bar to dance. It felt blisteringly rehearsed and spontaneous, like Springsteen pulling Courteney Cox on stage. Julie, another regular, danced on the corner table and smacked her head so hard on a sconce she slashed her forehead, unleashing a torrent of Merlot-colored blood. Julie was knocked out cold, but Lisa bandaged her head with the first-aid kit from the bathroom. She yelled into Julie’s face: Wake up, bitch! When Julie blinked into consciousness, Lisa made us all do shots.
Lisa asked for nothing, but we’d do anything for her. In the same way fireworks make you instinctually tilt your head up to the sky in awe, we were drawn to Lisa. Her bar was my home away from home. Lisa’s NYC was the NYC of the movies and TV shows I grew up watching in my Scranton living room. Mythical Gotham. City of swagger, art, celebrities, gorgeous drag queens, fabulous clothes. 42nd Street, Rent, Dorothy Parker. The gay New York of Andy Warhol. Except that it was all real. Lisa made it real. And I was part of it. The best part? Where was Lisa was from? Scranton. Two kids from Scranton, I said, now tearing up the big city. Lisa replied, There’s no better compass than a girl from Scranton. And you, my friend, have been lost a long time. Her wine-stained teeth glowed like magenta neon signs.
Lisa was the badass older sister I’d always wanted. She was tall, with long black hair—the living black of a motorcycle jacket roaring past you at 80 miles-per-hour. Her voice was seismic. Her laugh shook the plaster. She was the magnetic lesbian that straight women fell in love with. She gave me horrendous dating advice. Absolutely horrific. But she epitomized cool and I desperately needed to understand cool. I was a nightmare, drowning in my internalized homophobia and self-loathing. Always going somewhere, planning something, doing a dozen things at once. But when I held court in her bar, I didn’t want to run. She anchored me in moments. Moment by moment by moment. She tricked me into being present, into staying in my body.
Lisa was a Category-5 hurricane and as fast and furious as the storm of her gathered in my life, it just as quickly flamed out. On a Friday night, I walked into the bar, money in my back pocket, excited to feel Lisa’s glow, and I saw Wade, one of the barbacks. Where’s Lisa? I asked. Wade hung his head. Dunno. I… He didn’t finish his sentence. Lisa never showed up for her shift that night. She didn’t show up all weekend. Or ever again. She was gone. Did she quit? Did Mark fire her for one of her dance parties, or Julie’s concussion? Was she embezzling? I never found out. I lived on the same block for two more years, but I never saw her again. I searched for Lisa online. I still search. I’ve asked every Scranton friend about her, but no one’s seen her. Her parents died a decade ago. Lisa has no social media. No Facebook. No obituary, either. Lisa was real, but I was selfish. I didn’t get to know her as well as she knew me. Why didn’t I thank her? Sure, the world is broken. But never doubt the impact of one person. People still matter. Real moments still matter. In the relentless churn of New York City, a mysterious bartender from Scranton introduced me to myself.
Margot Douaihy is the author of Scranton Lace and Girls Like You (Clemson University Press). Her true-crime poetry project, Bandit/Queen: The Runaway Story of Belle Starr, is forthcoming in 2021. Douaihy’s fiction and poetry have been featured in PBS NewsHour, Madison Review, North American Review, Mystery Tribune, The Petigru Review, South Carolina Review, The Five-Two: Crime Poetry, and Adirondack Review, and among others.