1. He begins in a bar in Santa Monica in the early evening, a gastropub that serves burgers and beer, though he only has beer, first a lager from a local brewery that he finds a little too light and fruity and then a pale ale modeled on something from England, which has a nice caramel bitterness that leaves him feeling pleasantly at ease, as if he’ll sink into the cushion on his seat and get swallowed up by the soft fabric. On the patio across from him, facing the street and illuminated by the passing headlights, sit three guys about ten years younger than him, somewhere in their early twenties, talking excitedly and laughing wildly and slapping each other on the back, a field of empty glasses spread out on the table between them. They make Ahmed think of his own friends from college, how they used to go to bars like this one, the effortlessness of conversation, walking home afterwards and feeling as if life would always be this way. He finishes his last beer in one long bitter swig and then signals the waitress for the check. Above him, the sky is turning red with the sinking sun.
2. Next, he takes the metro all the way downtown, deciding on a whim to go to a brewery in the Arts District where he used to go all the time when he lived on that side of the city. It’s a large space in a converted warehouse, and by the time he arrives the sun has set, and the red brick building looks striking against the dark sky, the neon sign making him feel a jolt in his chest, reminding him of days years ago now, when he and Amy would come here and sit in a corner booth for hours, talking and laughing with the easy banter of a new relationship, then stumble out, hand in hand, kissing in the warm night as they waited at street corners for the light to change or in the doorways of office buildings, their bodies pressed against the dark glass. But now, when he goes inside, he feels a strange loneliness. The bar is crowded, and he has trouble signaling the waiter, and when he finally orders, his earlier buzz is gone, and he feels a headache coming on from the back of his neck. He drinks his beer quickly while standing at the bar, an IPA that he finds a little too strong. Afterwards he orders a Belgian sour and sips it slowly while checking his phone, feeling self conscious that he’s the only person here by himself and trying not to stare at the couple across the bar, both of them older than he is but gazing into each other’s eyes with a passion that he hasn’t felt for a long, long time. On his phone, he pulls up the email he sent earlier to the tutoring company where he worked, subject line “Two Weeks Notice.” He’d asked them to raise his pay rate but they’d refused, citing budgetary issues. It’s a tough economic time. We all have to make sacrifices. In a rage, he’d quit, sending the email before he could second guess himself. Now, in the dim light, pop music from his childhood playing over the speakers and echoing off the exposed pipes and the high ceiling, he wonders if it was the right decision. He has nothing else lined up, no private tutoring clients, no freelance writing gigs—just a modest savings account that likely won’t last more than a few months. He puts his phone away and finishes his beer and then signals the bartender for the check.
3. From there, he walks downtown, stops at a taco truck for a quick dinner, and then on a whim ducks into a cocktail bar on the ground floor of an expensive hotel, a narrow, rectangular space with dim lighting emanating from low hanging chandeliers and a chessboard wall that gives the place the vibe of a children’s dollhouse. It’s packed with men and women in business suits here for an after-work drink, and Ahmed hears snippets of conversation about project deadlines and HR departments. The sole, overworked bartender is a guy in a stylish button-down and skinny jeans who looks like he plays bass in a band part time. Ahmed feels a twinge of sympathy for someone pursuing an artistic career like himself, before remembering that he himself hasn’t written anything for years, not since his literary agent dropped him after the novel he’d written failed to get picked up by a major publisher. He orders a daiquiri, which is the special that night, and he finds it surprisingly good, so much so that he orders two more and drinks them relatively quickly. Now he’s very drunk, and he leaves the bar in a haze, stumbling past a group of women in pantsuits who give him a concerned look, the lights of the chandeliers at once too bright and too dim.
4. He can go home now, back to his apartment, watch a T.V. show or an old movie, or just masturbate to some porn and then go to bed, but now that he’s drunk, he’s decided why not stay out celebrate quitting his job, his fucking job that he never liked anyway—so he takes an Uber to Silver Lake and goes to a bar on Sunset, a hipster place with lots of people his age, women in stylish denim and leather jackets, men in patterned half-sleeve button downs, everyone drinking cocktails and talking in California accents, the familiar rhythm of millennial upspeak that once again makes him think of his life years before, when he’d first moved to LA and gone out in groups like the ones he saw at the tables around him, having serious conversations about books and writing and art. But when he sits down in a corner table and sips the old fashioned he’s ordered through a plastic straw, all he can think of is how he came here with Amy, after they were married, in those honeymoon years, how they sat at this very table, leaned close, the scent of her perfume clouding out all other scents, her voice drowning out all other voices. Now all he can do is concentrate on those other voices, each one reminding him of Amy. He opens up Facebook on his phone before remembering that she doesn’t have a profile, and this leaves him wondering what her life is like now, whether she’s happy, or whether she cries at night like he does, whether she sits in her new apartment and remembers the night they’d decided to divorce, that terrible night under the glaring lights of their kitchen, their voices hoarse from another long fight, Amy’s eyes red with tears, her repeated declarations “I can’t do this anymore” and “You’ve become so bitter and angry” echoing in his ears. That all happened a year ago, but tonight in the bar he thinks of it like it was yesterday, and he’s so overwhelmed with sadness that he only has this one drink, and afterwards stumbles out into the street, shielding his eyes from the glare of the streetlamp.
5. He walks for a while, back down Sunset and towards downtown, and in Echo Park he ducks into a dive bar that he remembers going to once with his old friend Veronica, who died in a car crash two years ago. She’d been complaining about her girlfriend Rebecca, how they’d tried to do an open relationship but how it had left them so bitter and jealous, but in those years, because Ahmed and Amy were happy, all Ahmed did was offer tepid words of comfort. Now, he sits at the bar, his elbows accidentally resting in a puddle of beer, a soggy receipt for over $100 clinging to his jacket. He orders a shot of whiskey and drinks it quickly, but instead of ordering another, he thinks of Veronica, how sudden the news was, how guilty he’d felt for not reaching out before. He worries he’d been a bad friend when she’d needed him most.
6. From there,he takes an Uber to the Miracle Mile and eats a burrito at a stand he remembered going to years ago—then afterwards he wanders into a new brewery that’s just opened up, in an old car dealership, an old-fashioned modernist building that dates back to the 1950s. It’s an awe inspiring, incredible place, high ceilings, loud music, bright lights, people everywhere, but behind them, Ahmed can still envision the car dealership as it once was, the places on the tiled floor where the salesmen’s desks would have sat, the center platform where a glamorous new model might be displayed, the walls with faded marks where advertisements must have hung—all of it now disappeared, a prior century transformed by the brutal progress of history. Everyone is so young here, he notices, so young, in white t-shirts that cling to their perfect bodies, crop tops showing off their flat stomachs, high waisted jeans that look as elegant as evening dresses on their lithe bodies, everyone dancing wildly, pounding shots, yelling at each other over the electronic tracks, making out in corner tables, touching each other on the shoulders and the waists and the chests even while they wait at the bar to order. Ahmed squeezes through the throng and orders a beer and a whiskey and then goes outside and sits at a table. Out here it’s still crowded, people smoking cigarettes and clustered around the small tables, laughter piercing the night in sharp spears of sound, but the music is dampened by the thick walls of the old building, and the cool night air feels refreshing against his skin. He sips his beer and stares at the row of buildings across the busy street, the palm trees silhouetted behind them looking to him like figures on a Grecian urn, cracked, faded, but somehow still surviving even after all these years.
7. He takes the bus from the car dealership to Culver City, feeling relaxed in the front seat, leaning his head back against the glass, the up and down rhythm of the bus strangely soothing to his stomach. When he disembarks, he walks for a bit before going into a karaoke bar that he’d gone to with Amy for one of her friend’s birthdays, a small place in a strip mall that makes him think of the suburb where he grew up. He doesn’t sing anything tonight but instead just sits at the bar, orders a simple lager, and listens while an Indian-American guy his age sings a song that Ahmed remembers listening to in high school, crooning out the melody with a heartfelt intensity and then ending with a bow to wild applause from the crowd.
8. From there, Ahmed walks for a while, down Venice Boulevard, the cars drifting by on his left, their headlights shimmering in the darkness, the palm trees and power lines swaying in the wind as if the whole world is slowly moving back and forth around him. Eventually, he reaches an old, speakeasy-themed bar, the sign glowing in the dark like a familiar landmark on a long stretch of highway. It’s past midnight now, and the place is mostly empty, but it will be open for another two hours, and there are regulars there sitting alone at tables or at the bar in pairs, talking quietly while soft jazz plays. Ahmed knows the wood paneling is probably no older than a decade, but he likes to imagine it’s been salvaged from an actual speakeasy, a bar from the 1880s that somehow survived Prohibition but then shuttered in the 1980s in the face of global capitalism. He sits on a stool at the bar and orders a brandy, which he drinks slowly, trying to savor the taste. He thinks about his novel, a multigenerational family saga which had begun in the early 20th century, part one a story of his grandfather’s life in Pakistan. He’d researched it so meticulously, looking at old photographs, spending hours at the library reading books and newspaper articles, making timelines at his desk at home, posters pasted to the wall with all the complex politics he’d hoped to capture. But for whatever reason, he’d missed something—something fundamental in the story, some kind of heart.
9. He takes an Uber back towards his apartment in West LA, but decides last minute to go to one final bar in Westwood, a place he’d once frequented as a student at UCLA, the kind of establishment that didn’t card and served cheap beer in pitchers and had big T.V.s that always broadcast ESPN. At this time of night, it’s still crowded with students. Ahmed sits at the bar and orders a beer and then notices a student beside him, talking animatedly to his friend, a brown guy just like him, perhaps Indian or Pakistani, but possibly Middle Eastern or Iranian too. It’s hard to hear exactly what they’re talking about, and Ahmed catches only snippets, but what’s more important is the way the guy looks—there’s an earnestness in his expression, his wide eyes, his open mouth, the purity of simple and straightforward excitement. As with all brown guys his age, Ahmed feels a slight tinge of recognition, wondering at which points their experiences mirrored each other—but he also can’t remember the last time he’d been so earnest about anything, the last time he’d had that kind of look in his eyes. Even in that final year with Amy, he’d been so jaded, so angry, decrying the publishing industry, decrying the world. Perhaps that was why she left, he suddenly thinks.
10. At home, he grabs a beer from his fridge and then sits at the bar of his kitchen counter, opening up his laptop, feeling compelled suddenly to write something. Amy used to sit here, he thinks, when they were still together, and from the kitchen while he cooked breakfast he could watch her as she worked, her bright eyes, the way she would run her hands through her hair in moments of intense concentration. There were still remnants of their life together across this apartment—a lamp that she’d purchased, a mug she’d given him as a gift, her calendar from the previous year that he’d been unwilling to take down and that still had her handwriting on it, reminders to take her birth control pill and turn in their rent checks and call her relatives on their birthdays. But he tries not to look at these objects, even as he thinks about them. Instead, he opens up Word on his laptop, his mind still fixed on the image of the brown guy in the bar, the earnestness of his expression. Ahmed is more drunk than he’s been in a long time, and he can feel all the alcohol in his body, pounding through his head, his bloodstream, his heart. But he also feels a sense of clarity he hasn’t felt in a long time, as if he’s finally understood what was missing from his early work, as if he’s unlocked the secret to something profound, an idea about life that if he loses he’ll regret for the rest of his years. He takes a swig of beer and lets out a breath. And then he begins writing.