The bar was not quite seedy, not quite rustic, and also not quite safe. The outside was nearly dark, barely setting it off from the bleak surroundings. I was alone, going to this theme bar with the intention of having a drink or two and seeing what all the fuss was about.
From the outside, it seemed like the place would take up half the block or more, but once in the door (no cover charge!) the sensation was of being in someone's living room: subdued, cozy, and welcoming. The small bar was in the center of the room, lit so brightly and directly from above that the rest of the room was in shadows. I walked up and got a drink almost immediately, standing between barstools with my shoulder to the bar, gazing around the room.
It took a while to realize that what had appeared initially to be close, solid walls was actually a number of doors, partially opened. Nearly half of each wall was in fact doors. That was the first hint that I got about what was to come.
I leaned in to ask the bartender what was up, which way I should start. She'd seen me turn after contemplating the room and was watching me with a bemused grin. Before I could even ask, she put up a hand to silence me. "Just pick one!" she said, over the music coming through the speaker near her elbow. I grabbed my glass. The third door from the entrance was directly in front of me. With no better way to choose, I walked through.
The door led to a small hallway which, as I stepped in, tilted distinctly toward the right. As I slid into the wall and braced myself back upright, I could hear quiet laughter. Someone had seen me nearly fall. I turned, but no one was behind me, and I could see no further ahead than my own hand. How?
The hall curved toward the left, revealing a light in the distance. I followed it, eventually coming out into a larger room than I'd started. There was a drop-off into the room; I jumped, sloshing some of my drink onto the floor. When I looked up, I realized that there were mirrors on each of the walls in the octagonal room. The images in the mirrors, though, were distorted and creepy: elongated or squat, brightly colored, intense. It was like a circus, or a Halloween fun house. Though there was another bar in the room and my drink was nearly empty, I wanted out. I chose a door at random--obviously unable to hop back up the way I'd entered--and made my way out.
This time, the floor was flat, but the side walls were tilted. Sometimes squeezing in, other times slanting oddly; it was nearly impossible to walk without falling over. I was grateful that I'd only had one drink.
That hallway let out through one of those ballpark turnstiles, the ones with alternating bars so that one can get through but only in the accepted direction. I clearly wouldn't be going back that way.
This room was short, with a lower than usual ceiling, and filled with tables piled with food. The over-riding scent was hot buttered popcorn, but I also saw platters of hot appetizers: bite-sized burgers and chicken fillets, nachos, all manner of deep-fried veggies and cheese, tiny pizzas and mini tacos. It was all hot, delicious, and free. I grabbed a plate and ate leaning against a table, chatting with some others who'd walked in with me. As if by agreement, we didn't talk about the place itself, just about the food. I was soon satisfied and ready to move on.
I walked through a door across the room. It was well-enough lit, flat, and seemed to be normally shaped. I wondered at what point some quirk would be revealed.
It let out very shortly, with no obvious distinction. I was troubled by that--and by a sudden, profound thirst. The free hors d'ouevres had done their job; I wanted another drink. Happily, that hallway let out into a large, round room with a horseshoe-shaped bar at the center. I stepped up and ordered another, this time getting the larger glass. As I drank the first third of it, I noticed a chill. Looking up, I realized that it was coming from above: the room was actually an open-air courtyard. The stars and a sliver of moon were visible in a dark sky. After another healthy swig, I turned to move on.
That was when I saw him. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that I ran into him, nearly spilling my drink again. He caught my elbow to steady me, smiling. I giggled, feeling all at once feeling the effects of the drinks and the surroundings and the night itself. He laughed too, seeming not to need any explanation. After a quick glance toward my glass, which was still half-full, and his own fresh drink, he quirked an eyebrow in the direction I'd been heading. I nodded, and he followed me through the door.
We made our way through that place, and everything that had seemed freaky and threatening was now just funny and clever and adventurous. We sat in one room behind two-way mirrors, watching people falling into walls, laughing in part because we had each already done it and in part because no one was actually getting hurt. We ate dessert in another room with a wide balcony over the appetizer courtyard. We passed some rooms from which unmistakable sounds were escaping--nothing too wild, but enough amorous intent to make us suddenly aware of ourselves, each other, and the strangeness of the evening. As we turned a corner just past, I tripped over the wavy undulation of the carpeting. He caught my arm, and then simply reached down to hold my hand.
His hand was big and rough, with obvious callouses from regular work. My own hand felt tiny within it.
The night ended too soon, though it was deceptive. When we came through the last doorway and out onto the street, silver-gray dawn was starting to emerge through clouds. The sidewalk and road were wet, rain having come sometime when we were indoors. He walked me to my car, then held up a hand while reaching into his inside pocket with the other. He pulled out a folded card and turned it toward me; I could read it even in the dim. An invitation, to a wedding, the following afternoon. I looked up, and he raised that eyebrow. I made a face, mulling the question, and when I took too long to answer, he nudged me. Grinning, I nodded. He hugged me, pulling me off my feet for a moment, and then kissed me for a moment. When our eyes drifted open, I made to speak--but he placed a finger over my lips, handed me the invitation, and walked away. His car was just up the street from mine. We each got in, started up, and drove, though in opposite directions.
We'd never spoken a word.
The next day, I woke with a sense of unreality and expectation. Had I dreamed the whole thing? One glance at the side table with the invitation on top confirmed that it was real. I mentally reviewed my wardrobe while getting up, showering, eating a quick breakfast. I dressed somewhat more boldly than usual, and styled my hair in an actual style rather than controlled disarray. Makeup, usually a slapdash thing for me, was carefully applied. I was ready at least an hour early, and then very nearly left late, trying to be cool.
The churchyard was packed. I walked in, unsure where to go or if he would even be there. My trepidation must have shown on my face, because a couple of people looked at me, concerned, before glancing across the foyer behind me. He must have asked them to watch for me, because as soon as he caught their signal he was right there beside me, smiling and taking my hand in his. We entered the sanctuary, choosing to sit near the front on the left.
Rather than the usual procession, a standard church service started things off. We stood and sat, prayed and sang, and heard a lesson. Actually, everyone else spoke or sang, and we simply did not, still never even pretending to talk. It was odd and significant.
Then, without any obvious switch, what had begun as a wedding became a funeral. It seemed as if someone close to the couple had passed away, and it was their wish to celebrate that person's life on their special day. We watched as a large screen was wheeled in at the front of the room, was powered up, and began to play a video tribute to the man who had passed.
Beside me, I felt him stiffen, sitting straight up as the identity of the dead man was revealed. He was a mobster, a well-known mafioso. A killer. As I watched the video in surprise, the hand in mind squeezed mine. I turned to him, looking into his eyes, and suddenly saw it: a resemblance with the man on the screen, strong enough that they could be related. Maybe father and son. Again, I opened my mouth to speak.
He silenced me by taking both my hands in his and slowly sliding to the floor before our pew. His eyes never left mine, and as he settled onto his knees before me, that expressive eyebrow went up again. He was, as everyone in the church realized by that point, offering marriage.
Naturally, I nodded, accepting the offer. As he pushed up off the floor, grinning, to take me into his arms
I woke up.
[the title quotation is by Douglas Adams, from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy]