In Providence: A Life Imagined

She works in a small office on the line where Providence meets North Providence, where she does medical billing and tries not to fall asleep.

“I bartend at night, and when I first started, I could juggle all these things,” she tells me over coffee near her house. “I’m getting older now so that’s not as easy.”

Feeling old and feeling old-er — it’s a distinction with which I can identify.

Her mid-30s aren’t what she thought they would be, and when I ask her what she imagined her life was going to be like at this point, she laughs.

“I thought I’d be living on an island somewhere in the Bahamas serving drinks and just — I didn’t think of myself as having a serious life. I never wanted that. It sounds immature, but I wanted to just have fun and, you know, if I burned out? So be it.”

Growing up, her parents were both laidback and involved at the same time.  They gave her a lot of freedom, and when she told them one day that she wanted to try getting high, they set some boundaries and told her to go ahead.

“My mother hated hypocrites, and with everything she’d done in her life, she felt like there wasn’t a lot she could tell me not to do that wouldn’t make her a hypocrite, so… She just wanted to make sure I was careful. That I felt supported and that my life was in order so that no matter what I did, I could come back to safety, and to my family. To love, I guess.”

Her parents think she’s doing pretty well now, even though she finds her apartment near PC and her 9 to 5pm job to be lackluster.

“That’s why I go out so much. More than I should, to tell you the truth.”

She works most nights at a bar downtown, but even on her nights off, she finds herself out in the city getting drinks with friends or drinking alone in whatever corner she can make for herself in dim lighting and subdued conversation.

“I like hotel bars. Feels kind of dirty, right? But, to me, it feels like the movies. Woman sitting at the bar. Having a drink. And we have some–They’re nice. The bars in hotels. Clean. Nobody bothers you. You feel safe.”

When she got to college, she found herself pulling back from people, and she couldn’t explain why. College is a major lifestyle change even for those who come from liberal backgrounds, where your parents don’t give you a curfew and talk to you openly about things like drugs and sex, but there’s something about that life that rattled her.

“I got in. I got out. Started bartending. Took the job I have now. Been there ever since. Been in my apartment for years. A few years now. I keep waiting for something to happen. I don’t know why I think something is, but … I keep waiting.”

Sometimes she’ll meet people at those hotel bars, or at other bars. Never her own. She doesn’t fraternize with customers, but when she’s on her own, she’s all smiles and light laughter.

“It’s about letting people know you like them. I always want everybody to know I like them, even if I don’t. I figure if I like them, they’ll like me.”

Her nights are late, but while some people might not like that Providence nightlife ends at 1am on most nights even in the wildest of circumstances, it’s one of the reasons why she likes living here.

“Oh, I worry about how I would do if– It’s good for me that I’m not somewhere that’s always got something going on. You know, it’s good to live in a place where it’s like–Okay, the night’s over.” She laughs that light laugh. “Time to go home, because there’s no place else to go.”

And what does she do once she gets there?

“I put on some music. I open my bedroom window if it’s nice out and I light a cigarette. I like that feeling like everybody’s asleep. Like I’m the only one up.”

What about those nights when she knows she has to be up early the next day?

“There are two me’s. There’s the one who knows that this can’t go on forever. It’s not a destructive life, but it’s not…It’s not long-term. It can’t be. I’m just not made for–None of us are. Made to be the bartender and the receptionist. Not at the same time.”

I ask her why she doesn’t consider giving up being the receptionist. It doesn’t seem to bring her any happiness and she could probably make enough money just bartending.

“For a few more years maybe, and then what? I don’t want to be a 70-year-old woman behind a bar. I don’t even want to be a 70-year-old woman at a bar. That–what I told you about my fantasy future–I wasn’t thinking very far ahead. I didn’t have a future past–I’ve lived past the future I dreamed of for myself. Can I do better than where I’m at now? Maybe. But I’m not ready to be boring yet, you know? Not boring. That sounds mean. You can do what I do at my job and have a great life. But–I’m not ready to be sad yet. I know how sad I’ll be and I’m not ready to be that yet.”

She’s going out tonight and she’s excited about it, because it’s one of her best friend’s birthdays and she knows she’s going to see some people she’s been missing.

“People don’t go out as much as they used to,” she says, “and we’re all getting older, so that’s only going to get worse. I keep waiting for the day I go out somewhere and I show up and it’s just me waiting on everybody else to show up. I’ll just be sitting there waiting all night with a drink in my hand. That won’t happen tonight, but it’s not far off. It’s really not.”

She smiles when she says this, like the thought of getting to that point will be a relief. Not because it won’t be sad, but because it will be. It’ll be the sadness she’s been trying to run away from for a very long time.