The men from Eritrea

Merlin’s Rest was long a favorite haunt of mine, especially in my heavy drinking days. It was a British Isles pub that featured a tremendous selection of whiskeys (and whiskys for those who enjoy a peaty scotch).

I’d become acquainted with a number of regulars there over the years. One such was an east-African man named Abraham. He was a union organizer at the airport. He was quiet guy who spent more time looking at news video from home on his phone than socializing, but I thought he was a decent sort.

I’d brought Tina to Merlin’s on our second date for Wednesday pub trivia hosted by the incomparably witty Bill Watkins. My friend Jeff showed up to make our team three and he seemed set on pushing the bounds of propriety with my new dating interest, talking about vinyl “gimp suits” with zipper masks and gag balls. Tina took it in stride and found it enormously entertaining.

After trivia was concluded and Jeff had departed, I introduced Tina to a few regulars, including Abraham and the pub’s “cultural ambassador,” Bill. The main mission was to get to know each other better, so I didn’t linger long at the regulars corner of the bar. Tina and I sat at a high table near the window. At the table next to ours, two women were leaned in towards each other engaged in conversation. Tina was a people-watcher, it seemed. Her attention was neatly divided between her date with me and the lesbian first date she deduced was going on behind me. Astrology came up and one of the women said she was a Scorpio. Tina interjected. “Scorpios are highly sexual people.”

I’m sure my eyes widened. I hadn’t expected to be meddling in lesbian romance.

The women turned their attention to Tina. They looked intrigued. “What else do you know about Scorpios?” One of them asked.

Though she was the cause of the moment, she suddenly turned red, embarrassed. “Um. I think it’s time for us to go,” she said to me. We made a hasty departure and left the ladies to carry on their date in peace.

Merlin’s became a fairly regular stop-off for us as our relationship progressed and Tina swiftly developed an affinity for Abraham. The two of them would chat at length. Something about their later conversations was making me uneasy, though. On one occasion, I was standing off the to the side waiting on our drinks order.  I couldn’t hear what they were discussing, but I saw Abraham make a “call me” gesture. I wondered if Tina had obtained his phone number at some point and if so, for what? She had taken an interest in his country of origin and I saw her reading up on Eritrea on her computer one night. That night, she commented to me on the drive home, “he’s very handsome.”

The next time I was at Merlin’s alone, I tried to engage Abraham in conversation and he seemed nervous and disinclined to chat with me. On my way out of the bar that night, I clapped Abraham on the shoulder when I said goodbye and he flinched.

I never really thought too much of all this, except that something was making me feel uneasy when I saw them together.

After several break-ups and reconciliations, I brought Tina back to Merlin’s after a lengthy absence. I was no longer drinking, but was happy enough to buy Tina drinks. She was so thrilled to see Abraham there and she talked to him at length while I chatted with some other regulars.

That night, Tina and I had been even more flirty and affectionate than usual and I was pretty hot for her. I was eager to get her home to make love. She seemed likewise inclined and after she downed a couple double shots of whiskey, we decided to call it a night.

Always a gentleman, I gestured for her to go first as we were leaving the pub, but Tina uncharacteristically froze in her tracks and insisted that I go by first. There was a look about her. An odd, abrupt shift in behavior that set my Spidey senses tingling.

I passed by her and put my hand on the door, but looked back over my shoulder to see what she was up to behind my back. What I saw sapped all the lust and probably color out me. I could actually feel  my love for Tina wash down my body and right out of my feet.

She put her hand on Abraham’s chest, leaned in and so sweetly kissed him on the cheek. I know how that touch felt from Tina. I didn’t at all like seeing another man bask in that soft and electrifying affection. I thought that was exclusively our shared experience. That was our love she was sharing with someone else.

I struggled with my thoughts and feelings as we walked on towards my van. I didn’t say a word to Tina. It was a kiss on the cheek – I shouldn’t get all bent out of shape about that, should I? It was the way she did it, though. The deliberate misdirection to hide it from me, touching his chest, the loving look on her face. The slow, lingering kiss. It was how I felt about it. It was wrong. I felt betrayed. It wasn’t just a harmless kiss on the cheek – or was it?

I struggled with my thoughts and feelings the rest of the night. When we got back to the house, I told Tina I didn’t appreciate it. I told her I didn’t want to make love to her anymore.

“I was so hot for you until that kiss. Now, I don’t feel anything. I’m numb.”

“Well, I’m still hot for you,” she said. “I only kissed him on the cheek. I didn’t think you’d mind.”

“Then why did you try to hide it from me?”

Tina made an effort at seducing me despite my agitated state, but she was more drunk than I’d first realized and quickly gave up and passed out on the couch. I stayed up replaying the kiss in my mind, trying to rationalize and excuse it.

About a week later, I stopped by Merlin’s by myself after work. I had my mind on having a word with Abraham. I’m not sure exactly what I expected from such an encounter, but I felt driven to pay a visit and sure enough, he was there at the bar, eyes glued to news from home on his phone. I ordered a soda and sat next to him. He didn’t acknowledge me. I tried a couple times to make eye contact with him, but, though he was seated right next to me, it was as if he couldn’t see me.

I did eventually get his attention and I asked him what he thought about Tina and I getting back together.

“If you think it’s good, it’s good, man,” he shrugged.

“Yeah. Sometimes I wonder,” I said. I had finished my soda. I stood. “See you next time, Abraham.” I clapped him on the shoulder. He flinched.

In April, Tina and I went to the Hexagon, something of a neighborhood dive, but one of the few places in the area that still had what we desired: Pool tables. After a game and a half, Tina and I decided to step out for a cigarette and left our cues crossed on the table to indicate it was still in use with a game in progress. When we returned a few minutes later, our table had been reset and a thin young black man was shooting on it by himself.

It was just a game and we didn’t make a fuss about it. Instead, we introduced ourselves and started a three-player game of cut-throat with him.

His name was Selah and he turned out to be an immigrant from Eritrea like Abraham. Tina was thrilled to discuss his home country with him and we had a nice time, but I was noticing that Tina was getting pretty drunk. Her usual order was a double-shot of whiskey and ice water for a chaser (as mine used to be), but I went to the bar for her and brought her back a single shot. I couldn’t control her drinking, but I thought she could slow down a little bit. Drunk at home was generally no problem, but babysitting a drunk in public was something else. She looked at at the shot like I’d brought her a piece of chewed gum from the parking lot. “I guess someone thinks I’m too successful, socializing,” she said to herself, but audible enough for me. Despite her disgust, she eventually downed the whiskey.

Tina didn’t trust me with her drink orders anymore and asked for money to buy herself another drink. I handed her some cash and took my turn. I was having a pretty good run on the table and won the game.

When I turned back to the table, Tina was sitting across from Selah, a fresh drink and a scrap of paper before her. The tip of a pencil in her hand was pressed to the paper but when she noticed me beside her, she lamely tried to conceal the writing implements. Looking at my face, she knew I’d seen what she was doing and made a quick change of tack, pushing the paper and pencil over to Selah.

“Here. Write your number on this and I can call you about the party,” she said.

Selah picked up the pencil and looked uneasily at me. I tried to keep my expression neutral. I was embarrassed, for some reason and didn’t want to let on about that. I also wanted to see how this would play out without any input from myself.

He hesitated, pencil hovering over the paper making nervous little circles in the air like he was trying to remember how to draw numbers.

He lifted his hand and looked me in the eye. “I’m not the kind of guy who’s trying to steal anyone’s girlfriend, or anything like that,” he said.

I kept an even gaze and gave the slightest hint of a shrug.

“I was telling him about your birthday party,” Tina put in. “Go ahead. Write your number down. I’ll call you,” she prodded.

Hand shaking, he did scrawl some digits on the scrap of paper. I decided if he was going to be called about my birthday party, I might as well take possession of the number, but as I reached, Tina snatched it up and stuck it in her purse.

This was all pretty upsetting, but I didn’t want to make anything of it at the bar. I waited until we got home to discuss it with Tina.

“Just a month ago, wasn’t it you who said you knew it wasn’t right for you to get guy’s phone numbers at the bars? Didn’t you tell me you were sorry you did that before and promise you wouldn’t do that kind of thing anymore?”

“It’s not like I gave him my number. This way he can’t call me unless I want him to.”

WHAT!? We’d veered into crazy territory and my mind was reeling. “What difference does that make?”

“I was afraid not many people would come to your party so I wanted to invite him. He’s really nice. All the people from Eritrea are so nice!”

“Why do you think I’d want some stranger from the bar at my birthday party? And anyway, before I came over, you were about to write something down. What were you going to write on that piece of paper?”

“Just… uh… Just my name.”

“Your name. What, he wanted to learn how to spell Tina?”

“At least I didn’t give him my number, though,” she said again.

OH MY GOD.

Tina took me on too-frequent excursions to an existential crazy-town. It was taking a toll on me. I felt like I was shunted into a parallel universe.

Over the ensuing week, we actually had further debate on inviting Selah to my birthday party and I relented. “Go ahead and invite him if you want,” I finally said. She didn’t, though.

Another week went by and although I’d quit working at Bobby and Steve’s, I still filled in for an hour a month to cover the counter during employee meetings. So I was working a register when our old friend Selah from the Hexagon came into the store to buy a pack of Newports from my temporary coworker at the next register.

“Hey. I know you. Selah, right?”

He looked extremely uncomfortable and wasn’t very talkative. Maybe he’s shy when he’s not drinking. “Yeah,” he nodded. He got his cigarettes and beat a hasty retreat out of the store.

Over the years that I knew Tina, I’d had a nebulous notion slowly forming that began to gel as a theory after I got sober. It seemed like she became quickly and easily infatuated with other men. I may have just been an infatuation to her as well because I couldn’t imagine treating the feelings of someone you truly love with such contemptuous disregard.

A couple weeks ago, I saw Abraham at the airport. I called out his name to  greet him, but he walked right by like he didn’t see or recognize me.

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