A guy named Tony is beating me for the fourth straight time in a game of bar shuffleboard. Tony is tall and skinny, and a long gray ponytail droops from under his Indians cap. He has a tattoo on his forearm that says, "Don't Ask." I have never played bar shuffleboard before.
It is 3 p.m., a time when responsible people are at work, and it is Taco Thursday at Tremont's Hotz's Café, a place where I have never been. Why am I doing this?
Because I can.
My wife and I spent a few months in Berlin this summer, studying German. I'm a teacher, and one of the great perks of teaching (other than the enormous salary) is summer vacation. We have been together for 10 years, and the Cleveland we know is the Cleveland of couples. We have our favorite restaurants, as couples do. We have our unalterable Saturday routine: coffee and newspaper on the sun porch, breakfast at Tommy's on Coventry Road, then hanging out at Mac's Backs Books. Possibly a movie that night. Same thing on Sunday, but at different venues (Grumpy's, Visible Voice). This is our way. It has always been our way. To change it would be weird. It wouldn't be "us."
I had to return to Cleveland a few weeks before she did in order to get ready for school. After a couple of days, I woke up one morning and thought, I am alone. For a while, I'm a single guy. I can do anything I want. It was a giddy feeling. I did not absolutely have to go out to the sun porch with my Browns coffee mug and read the sports section. I could do well, something else!
Most of us tend to do things simply because we've always done them that way. It's comforting. My wife and I stick to our little patterns in and around our East Side neighborhood. But suddenly, without her there, I realized how limiting these habits can become.
So I got in the car and drove to the Big Egg on Detroit Avenue for breakfast. I'd driven past it a million times without ever going in. But now I was Single Guy! Life was fresh and new. The waitress greeted me with what seemed like an especially radiant smile. Was it because I was alone? I sat down and ordered pancakes. I hadn't had pancakes in 10 years. My wife and I aren't pancake people. I was breaking out! I was taking risks!
The people at the Big Egg were not the people of Tommy's. Their clothes were different. Even the way they talked seemed exotic. I was an East Sider infiltrating the West Side, fearlessly slipping across borders, eating pancakes. It was cool.
A couple days later, I did something even bolder. I journeyed across town to Crocker Park. I never go to malls. My wife and I aren't mall people. But suddenly it seemed astounding that I had never visited this strange town of shoppers feeding on handbags and leather pumps and skinny jeans. I walked the little streets in wonder, sipping a mocha latte, grooving to a Muzak accordion version of Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." No one there knew me. I knew no one there. It was almost like being in Berlin again. Trekking through that labyrinth of shops, I was an explorer pushing the boundaries.
One day, because my wife and I don't bowl, I went bowling at the Corner Alley downtown. One afternoon, because I'd never been there, I went to the Crawford Auto Aviation Museum and chatted with an old guy about old cars.
And one night, because I could, I went to Nighttown at around 10 and sat at the bar. This is something my wife and I have done many times. Being there with your spouse, however, is one thing. But being there alone? You suddenly realize that everything is charged with the teeniest frisson of possibility. Of course you're not going to cheat on your wife! Are you crazy? Yet suddenly there's this itsy bitsy particle of chance. You're Single Guy, with special powers! It gives the olive in the gin just a little more tang.
For a few weeks it was nice to stray just slightly outside my comfort zone, to be me instead of us.
Now life is back to normal. My wife and I are on the sun porch with our coffee, and it's good to have her home. Her German is much improved. And yet I can't help but think back to my days as Single Guy and give a little sigh.
And now and then she looks up from the paper, recalls her days as Single Girl in Berlin and gives a little sigh.