I flipped my turn signal on and pulled off the highway into Barefoot Bernie’s Bar and Grille. We were stopped at the intersection of the parking lot and the turning lane by an intimidating looking man wearing a black t-shirt and an ear piece. The black button clicked and the passenger window rolled down, letting in the summer swelter. I looked past my wife and up to the towering parking attendant who lowered himself to meet us.
“You’ll have to park at the hotel” he said. “Biker rally in town this week, it’s only a short walk. Go up the road to the next right and pull around back by the stairs.”
I nodded, rolled the window up, and rode the shoulder. Having found an empty spot, I slapped the gear shift into park and slipped my sandals back onto my feet. I find driving in flip flops to be a particularly uncomfortable experience. It always feels as if the slats of foam and rubber are actively working at causing a car accident. Kellie smiled at me and gathered her purse as we climbed out of the car to greet the humidity of a July evening. The man was right, it was only a short walk to the bar thanks to a concrete path cut into the side of a gentle hill.
There was the persistent sounds of manliness, the rumble of deep-throated motorcycle exhaust, and the tinkling of beer bottles. Baritone voices and tenuous male camaraderie were joined with the sounds of rockabilly. The air smelled of cigarette smoke, gasoline and testosterone. And in my ears, echoing loud through the air, the sound of my flopping sandals. My wife reached over and sweetly took my hand in hers. With interlaced fingers we rounded the corner of the bar. I looked out at the leather cabal. My eyes darted quickly from dozens of bodies clad in chains, and depictions of skulls to my own batman logo and golf shorts. As their eyes followed us, drawn to the peculiarity among them, I resisted the urge to stand taller and drop my wife’s hand. The entrance was in view, I could see families and small children through the restaurant windows. Inside was a picture of domesticity in which I could comfortably fit.
“Welcome to Barefoot Bernie’s” a bubbly hostess in her early twenties smiled. “How many?”
“Um, we’re here for the paint night” I said with not a little trepidation in my voice.
“Oh, they’re set up in the back corner.” She pointed in a general direction and turned her false enthusiasm toward the family of four who followed behind us.
The Paint Night area was easy to spot. Three rows of folding tables and chairs with neon green vinyl coverings were crammed into what was obviously the lowest priority section of the restaurant. In front of each seat was a canvas and an easel, accompanied by a plastic cup with three brushes and a paper plate with dollops of red, black, and yellow. At the head of the rows was the artist’s table. On it were only two canvasses, one of them blank, the other painted with the image that we paint night participants hoped to emulate. I looked in mild horror upon a silhouette of two owls, one leaning upon the other, alongside a heart shaped tree.
Because my wife has an irrational fear of being late, we were the first Paint Nighters to arrive. We took our seats and exchanged pleasantries with the evening’s artist. She was an art student at some community college I’d never heard of, but she seemed a capable and charismatic leader. I worked at shaking off my inner suspicions, ignoring the sideways glances she periodically threw in my direction. I couldn’t help but feel that I was being studied, that my intentions were being called into question. I fancied it the look one gives a person obviously out of place- like a lumberjack at a Streisand concert or a stripper at a child’s birthday party.
My concerns only grew as a parade of female stereotypes filled out the remaining seats. There were the mother-daughter combos, pairs of friends seeking a girl’s night out to vent about their respective miseries, and the bachelorette party. Just a short aside here to mention a perhaps insignificant but nonetheless fascinating detail, the bride to be was wearing a white silk sash decorated with wine stains and the word bachelorette. She was obviously drunk, and was later a bit too open to our waiter’s sexually euphemistic language.
In the midst of a storm of estrogen and feelings of being alien, my heart briefly rose as another man made an appearance, but any hope was quickly dashed when the man pulled up a chair from a neighboring table and took a cramped seat between two easels. He was there with his girlfriend, though obviously not to paint. I later found out that his only function at this artistic gathering was, to drink beer and tell his girlfriend all of the ways she was fucking up her painting.
Everyone was seated and our artist for the evening clipped a wireless lapel mic onto her pink Paint Night shirt.
“Hello everyone” she spoke in her spritely voice. “Welcome to Paint Night, my name is Stephanie and I’ll be your artist this evening.”
Everyone greeted her warmly.
“Before we get started this evening- place your left hand on your blank canvas, raise your right- let’s say the Paint Night oath.”
All but me obeyed her commandment. I simply wore a puzzled look and tilted my head slightly the way a dog does when given an unfamiliar command.
“Now repeat after me- I promise: To relax and have fun. Not to throw my canvas across the room. Not to use the words “Mine sucks!” “I screwed it up!” “Can you fix this?” “Can’t you just do it for me?” “I thought this was paint by numbers!”
The crowd of women, now laughing, repeated the oath in time with Stephanie.
“Now you’re ready to drink creatively” she added finally.
On cue a waiter emerged from nowhere to take drink orders. My wife ordered a water with lemon, which I drank most of.
Stephanie set to the task of acquainting each of us with our painting equipment. Each Paint Nighter had been given three brushes of differing sizes. The largest was called daddy brush. The middle was called mamma brush, and the smallest was called baby brush. My eye rolling must have been audible; Kellie looked at me with a grin that can only be described as shit-eating.
The first order of business was to thoroughly wet our canvas. For this we used Pappa Brush. This task was easily mastered. The remainder of the night was generally uneventful. There was drunken cackling and general revelry. I enjoyed eavesdropping on my only male counterpart as he belittled his girlfriend’s brushwork. I nudged my wife occasionally. I wanted her to hear him and think me a good man by comparison.
At the end of the night, our paintings complete, our artist bid everyone pose with their paintings in front of a vinyl beachfront backdrop. I failed to fight the urge to make some snide comment about how any family memory must now be tainted by the irresistible urge to take narcissistic photographs for the purpose of self aggrandizement. Kellie successfully parried my pretentious comment and forced me to smile.
Before we set out, I looked at my still wet painting. It had turned out well for someone who had never held an artist’s brush before, and though I had loathed the carefully crafted marketing speak of the evening, I had enjoyed myself overall. The creation of art is a joy. Something aesthetically pleasing, simple and contrived as it may have been, now existed because I touched brush to canvas. There was nothing novel about my painting, other than the fact that I had painted it. I imagined myself at a craft store, purchasing canvas, easel, and a variety of paints. I imagined dozens of masterfully crafted works covering the walls of my future mansion. I would become much more than a Paint Night artist. I would become a master.
I was pulled from my delusion of grandeur when Kellie and I reached the glass double doors at the bar’s entrance. Shit, the bikers I screamed within my own mind. I had forgotten all about them. I was not a famous artist accompanied by pomp and circumstance. I was an overweight man in my mid-twenties, wearing flip flops and a Batman shirt at a bar in western Maryland, accompanied only by my wife and a painting of two silhouetted lover-owls. I pointed my eyes at the ground as my wife opened the door ahead of me. As I made the long march through the biker rally, I accidentally glanced upward and caught the eye of one leather clad body builder who simply looked me top to bottom, nodded and said “nice painting.”