A slightly different version of this story appears in issue 5 of Medium Chill. Buy it here.
It was when the river disappeared that we knew once and for all we’d lost. I remember how we all just stood there unbelieving with our bottles of chilled Prosecco and our fluted glass stemware, our foldable camping chairs and plastic coolers of ice and cans of beer, gaping at a muddy trench freshly scraped into the earth that had once been flowing water and our refuge from everyday urban malaise. Even the riverbank, on which we’d sat on so many Saturday afternoons getting pleasantly drunk in the open air and managing to find some temporary affection for this city we’d come to inhabit only by necessity, was now mostly obliterated, transformed into a craggy, irregular precipice overlooking the morass. We sighed and cursed in exasperation and one of us chucked a full can of lager into the former river and watched as it was quickly consumed by mud.
We’d only begun coming to this spot a few months before, after most of the nearby pubs and restaurants in the city had disappeared. At least all the ones worth frequenting. Before that, it had only been the outdoor seating that was there one day and gone the next, but then later it was the actual establishments themselves erased from existence. Sizable swaths of al fresco seating we’d enjoyed on so many occasions were abruptly replaced by parking lots and barren concrete slabs. We’d ranted and raved each time, but even though the local language was close enough to our own for us to effectively convey our indignation, our protests went unacknowledged. The café tables and chairs were gone, followed by the pubs themselves and then finally the idyllic riverfront and, with it, our will to continue to find the good in this place.
The oddest part was that none of the locals seemed to acknowledge the absence, as though the memory associated with each place had also been wiped clean. Each time a patio or terrace or courtyard or rooftop where we’d previously sat and had drinks went vacant, we’d asked the proprietors what had happened. They’d only offered to seat us at any of the booths or tables inside the dining room. “Why can’t we sit outdoors? Where did the outdoor seating go?” we’d asked over and over and had been told that we would be much more comfortable sitting indoors. Which, of course, wasn’t true. Drinking outdoors is a uniquely pleasurable experience impossible to capture in even the nicest indoor establishments.
We had compromised our principles and continued to go out for drinks in the evenings after work or on early weekend afternoons when the weather was nice enough to justify it. We had seated ourselves begrudgingly at tables and booths in indoor dining rooms but had then snuck outside with our pints or cocktails to drink them surreptitiously among groups of huddled smokers. It was a temporary solution, of course, but it was still nice to be intoxicated in the open air. But then, one by one, the places themselves had vanished as though they’d never existed, leaving only plywood or cinder block walls in place of what had previously been familiar and welcoming front entrances.
After that, we’d taken to the riverbank, and, with summer approaching, it felt good to be out having a few drinks in the fresh air in the shadow of that imposing megalopolis. Sometimes we’d dive from the highway bridge and swim around giggling and half naked in the swirling current underneath or bring our fishing poles and cast our lines into the water and then bask in the warm sun as the alcohol took effect and we forgot for a few fleeting moments where we were. And then within a few months the river too was gone, the city’s landscape irrevocably altered. It was a finishing blow, an unequivocal demonstration of authority.
Most of us admitted defeat then. We capitulated. We went to work and came home every day around 5:30, but, instead of going out in the evenings, we had people over for taciturn drinks in our own living rooms or we got drunk safely at our friends’ houses. We went to dinner sometimes and ordered no more than two glasses of the house red and minded our manners and kept the volume level down. We made sure not to enjoy ourselves too much. On the weekends, we slept in a little and then did laundry or maybe went to the gym for an hour or so and later stayed in for lunch or dinner before nodding off in bed while reading at 9:30.
A few of us resisted and performed passive acts of rebellion, such as drinking on curbsides or on the front stoops of apartment buildings or having a few road beers in local taxi cabs. We passed them often on our way home from work or an early dinner and reflected nostalgically on how we’d lived only a few months earlier. Although we knew by then that these dissidents were destined to fail, we still felt some affection for the noble futility of their stance. Soon enough, though, the people themselves disappeared without warning and with no clear explanation. Acquaintances we’d known for years and considered part of our social circle were just gone, leaving not a flat expanse or a walled edifice but a complete void.
Sometimes it seems as though the relationship between citizens and an autocratic authority is best represented through the arms race of people who want to get drunk outside and powerful entities that pointedly do not want this to happen. There was a time, when we were young and carefree and considered ourselves excluded from the social norms of our adopted countries, that we enthusiastically engaged in this struggle, but that time has now passed. Now we are bent double by the system and surrendered to the will of absolute control. We drink and laugh still. We carouse, but we do it in the relative safety of our own homes.