The Film: Wong Kar-Wai’s 2000 romantic ode to moral trappings and self-restraint
The Potable: One six-pack of PBR, for old time’s sake
In the summer of 2009, I walked along the boardwalk in downtown Wilmington, North Carolina on a Saturday afternoon. One of the quiet July weekends that came after the Fourth and the fireworks, most everyone I knew had left to visit their parents before the school year began. A boat lapped against the wharf, and behind it, the low hum of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, the cars going West through the reeds.
I stepped into a bar off Front Street, a place I was familiar with, but which felt unrecognizable at the early hour. The bartender cleaned glasses and fiddled with the overhead TV as an old man in the back smoked over a plate of french fries. I took a seat at the bar and fished out my own pack of Camels.
“There’s no smoking in here,” the bartender told me. I looked back at the old man, who was busy squeezing mustard onto his plate. I put my cigarettes away, ordered a PBR, and asked if I could keep the bottlecap.
I took a sip and glanced up. At the end of the bar sat a girl, roughly my age, with a can of Miller High Life that she kept mixing with orange juice. She had dark hair and tattoos along her arm and she read a battered library copy of Peter Taylor’s short stories. She was evidently allowed to smoke as well, resting her cigarette against the lip of an ashtray each time she turned a page. Three pages after I arrived, she exhaled, looked up through the smoke, and smiled at me.
I smiled back, but in a panic, quickly turned away, my gaze settling on the television.
“You a Giants fan?” the bartender asked me. I said I was not, that I didn’t really follow football, and he explained that he didn’t either but was from New Jersey originally and felt a certain obligation. But for someone uninterested in the sport, he seemed pretty invested, and he began spouting off the names of various quarterbacks and their number of passing yards. He knew the stats relating to tackles, interceptions, and sacks of various linebackers and fullbacks and whatnot.
I snuck a glance at the girl down the bar, who had returned to her book.
“I’ll make you a bet right now,” he said. “I know you don’t follow football, but a small bet. Ten bucks; Giants have this in the bag.”
Reluctantly, but obligingly, I agreed. What was ten bucks, after all? I began to pull out my Camels and the bartender repeated that smoking was not permitted.
I don’t remember who the Giants were playing, but by game’s end, the bartender had lost. He laughed, said “son of a bitch,” and slapped a ten dollar bill on the counter.
Having been on the losing end of a gamble before, I felt a certain sense of guilt about winning and waved the money away. He insisted, saying he hoped my win would encourage me to follow sports more regularly, but again I refused. An absurd gift to accept, I thought, this sum I stumbled into.
At the end of the bar, the girl had left, a smoldering cigarette left to expire in the ashtray. “Do you know who that was?” I asked the bartender. “Her name?” He shrugged. A new patron entered, a middle-aged man in a fleece pullover, and the bartender went to take his order. I counted out the cash for my drinks, placed it on top of the ten, and left.
In the Mood for Love, Wong Kar-Wai’s lyrical masterpiece, focuses on a neighboring man and woman who discover that their spouses have been having an affair together. The jilted pair find solace in one another, despite their grief, and form a connection of their own. Ultimately, they deny their feelings for each other out of a shared sense of guilt. To indulge would make them no better than the significant others who broke their hearts. They remain, tragically, unhappy and alone.
It’s a frustrating conclusion, and right then and there I made a promise to myself. I will never be like them, these dutiful fools. I will stop shying away from life, stop succumbing to societal pressures. I will seize opportunities as they’re presented. Take life by the horns, as they say in the bullfighting industry. Who cares if it’s been eight years? If it was an awkward exchange? That we were never formally introduced? Today is the first day of my life, and I want that ten dollars.
This morning, I managed to track down the bartender. He said he didn’t remember me or our bet, but also didn’t particularly care, and he assured me that a check was in the mail. I plan to spend it on a six-pack of ankle socks and a Hungry Man dinner.
Verdict: money in the bank