LETTER TO A STRANGER
TO THE MEN IN THAT GLASGOW PUB WHO STARED
BY AMY LEE LILLARD
You eyed me as I downed my Harp, and I saw my first solo trip transforming. You were alive, all of you men, pulsing with chatter and drink, filling the low stools and tables, drinking American beers, singing along with the guitarist in the Victorian bay window. Since I’d spent the last hour wandering the rows of stone markers and mausoleums above the Glasgow Cathedral, I breathed easier at bodies in motion rather than still decay.
From my corner nook in the pub, near the entrance, I felt you, looking. I examined the walls around us, covered in framed landscape photos and the occasional black-and-white shot of the city from a hundred years past. Underneath the art, the walls were deep red. The color of blood, sure. But the kind of blood that issued mostly from women. I was probably alone in this assessment, since I was nearly alone in my woman-ness in the pub.
The Harp hit hard and fast. I was already a bit drunk on time, flying overnight and losing hours on the way. But I’d powered through a day of being a good tourist: riding the double-decker tour bus, gaping at the Orange parade of angry drummers in kilts, scouring the streets for vegan food and iced coffee. I was mistaken for one of you with my red hair, and when I spoke, in polite yet distinctly non-native tones, I was confused for Canadian. Americans are far more rude, a tour guide said.
When the lot of you looked at me in the pub, aggressive in your appraisal, I felt delivered, full of purpose. This trip was an experiment in my new late-thirties life, one where I’d left behind my partner of ten years and our city of Chicago. In this new life, in my hometown of Des Moines, I had a savings account and a car. An apartment free of the black brutalist design that I never liked. I wore band t-shirts and heavy eyeliner without his scowl, and ate cookies without his eyes on my waist. I entered my home and took up the space, without fear of a fight. In this new life, I was the odd one in my family, the only one without children or spouse. But I could breathe now. And I would stop waiting to travel. I would act. I would do.
In my old life, I would have attributed your attention to a massive pimple or a period stain. In this life I would embrace what my body could bring. And if had a guest star in my hotel room? I assessed my readiness: Decent underwear, recently shaved armpits, loose morals and looser inhibitions. Approved.
One of you made your move. You had a bottle of Budweiser in your chapped hands. You spoke my language but formed syllables differently, our disconnect immediate, from the roots of our tongues. And you were older, a Scottish version of my father, and thus an immediate disqualification for anything beyond conversation. I was disappointed it was you.
But you offered a seat, and I took it. You thrilled to my accent, pointed to the Budweiser, and peppered me with questions about America. You offered me a wrapped candy, a sort of hard caramel brittle with sugar crystals that you said was local. I took candy from a stranger.
The rest of you glanced over at us. That’s when the candy-offering you asked me who I was waiting to meet. When I said no one, that I was here in Scotland on a trip by myself, that I had found this bar and wanted a drink after a long day of touristing, your smile curved and your eyebrows raised.
We thought you were jilted by a man, you said.
I laughed. We thought you’d been humiliated, you said, by a man promising to meet at a townie bar that only local men went to. I laughed harder, with more effort. Men go to bars alone, not women, you said. I stopped laughing.
I considered excusing myself for the restroom. Leaving the bar, ghosting on you Scottish men. I considered the rest of my trip ahead, the train to Stirling and its castle, the bus through the Highlands to Inverness, the train through the country filled with heather and horned sheep, the medieval maze of Edinburgh. All on my own. All filled with men that might look at me like you did.
I assessed myself once again. My jeans covered my legs and my jacket covered my arms. My belly and brain were filled with two (or three?) beers. I did the calculation we women do, adding up my outfit, my behavior, my intake, the width of my smile, the volume of my laugh, the space I occupied. Our sums equal the blame we earn. Our share of any shame.
You with the Budweiser waited. You looked like my father, and I felt like your child, scolded for my own good. You looked like my boss from three jobs past, who said women couldn’t write. You looked like my partner at that moment of shifting from sweetness and teasing to anger, insults, danger.
I drank my Guinness, in the pub in Glasgow, surrounded by you.
I smiled. It was different in America, I said. Women go to bars alone all the time, I lied. My mistake, I said. But what a good one, to meet all of you.
You were disarmed, back on solid ground when a woman admitted fault. Immediately you were off to the races, telling me your thoughts on Obama (inspiring), New York (dirty), and our involvement in Iraq (disastrous). I listened, sipped my beer, smiled. I counted five, ten, fifteen minutes, until I could leave.
When I left, my cheeks burned and my head hurt. But I made myself eat a full dinner alone in a hipster-packed restaurant near my hotel. I bought myself a pack of Scottish cigarettes with skulls and cancerous lungs on the wrapper, and had my first smoke in months, on the city street, under the 10 p.m. sunset. I felt your eyes on me, seeing through the bloody walls. I looked back at you, and I didn’t smile.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amy Lee Lillard was named one of Epiphany’s Breakout 8 Writers in 2018, and will be appearing in August as an opening reader for Amber Tamblyn’s Any Man book tour. Her fiction and nonfiction also appear in Atlas and Alice, Entropy, Gertrude, and Grist. She holds an MA in literature from Northwestern University and an MFA in fiction writing from the Pan-European Program at Cedar Crest College.
Header image by Jordan Andrews.