My laughter is so light and twinkly that even I almost believe it.
John just finished telling me a funny story that is decidedly not funny. It wasn’t funny the first six times I’d heard it, and it still isn’t funny now. But it’s my job to humor John just enough for him to be convinced to order at least one more drink. And what can I say—I’m pretty good at my job.
It’s a weird gig for such a staunch introvert like me, I’ll admit. Some would argue that it goes against my nature to be in this racket. As a quiet, nervous type who finds my joy in solitude, no one could have predicted I’d choose to subject myself to this kind of inane interaction with loud strangers on a regular basis. At the same time, the ones who only know me as the person I am when I’m on my stage behind this bar never understand how I self-identify as such a recluse. Because again: I’m really good at my job.
I shake my head and choke out the last few chuckles with a sympathetic sigh as I look over my shoulder to find any reason to abandon glassy-eyed John until he’s ready for that next pint. I spy my opportunity: the drinks in front of the couple canoodling a few seats over from him are down to their last gulps. I tap the flat of my palm on the bar twice to signal to John that I’m done with him for now. He quietly sips his beer and stares at the television screen above my head like I’m already gone
“How are you two doing over here?” I ask the guy, but I’m looking at the lady.
“Good,” she giggles.
It’s hard to say if she’s laughing about something he said or because she thinks she’s supposed to. I can sympathize with that.
She looks to her date to take over the conversation for her.
“What are you thinking?” He keeps his eyes trained on her when he speaks, as if I’m not even here. “Should we have one more?”
“Yeah,” she says, long and seductive. “Sure.”
I’ve been having a hard time getting a read on where these two are going tonight. He clearly wants to bang her, but she’s as shifty as the tide under a full moon. I'm not really rooting for them either way, but I only have so many glasses to polish before I have to find other ways to quietly entertainment myself until closing time.
“Yeah.” He swivels his head slowly in my direction only to look down at his glass as he says it. “One more round.”
I waggle my pointer finger back and forth at their glasses and raise my eyebrows inquiringly. “Same thing?”
“What?” He nearly looks at me with his puzzled, squinty eyes.
I really didn’t think the question would be confusing for him but here we were.
“Oh, yeah, sure,” he says.
The cash register sits right in the middle of the counter behind me. When I turn to add the couple’s next round to their bill, I hear the door open and sweep another body in from the rainy chill outside. By the time I spin around again to build the lady’s Cosmo and buddy’s rum and coke (because of course it’s a rum and coke; “With a lime, hey?”), the damp newcomer is pulling out a chair at the farthest end of the counter. I still can’t see a face beyond the dark bundle of hood and scarf, but the striking crimson gloves that poke out from black sleeves catch my eye before I get back on task.
My shiny silver shaker tin sits inverted on the bar mat in front of me. I flip it over and walk through the steps of one of my favorite dances. With a bottle of cranberry juice in my right hand, simple syrup in the left, I pour both ingredients into the tin at the same time. I catch the lady in front of me watching my hands as I work. I feel the guy’s eyes dart from her to me and back again. I like when they watch me. By design, I tend to blend into the background; ever the barfly on the wall. But knowing that I’m good at what I do when I do it helps galvanize the tremor from my nerves to the low, satisfying hum of justified arrogance.
I pretend not to notice their intrigue when I cut a perfect lime in half and, with a touch of flair, squeeze all the juice from its shell in one hand. All the while, I keep one eye on my newcomer, waiting for her to pull back enough layers to reveal herself to me.
Judging by the cut of the jacket, I admit that I assume my hooded guest is female. She has her back to me while I watch her afar, waiting for the opportunity to acknowledge her. One at a time, she plucks the bright red leather gloves from her long fingers and places them neatly into her bag. She peels the grey wool scarf away from her mouth and drapes it over the back of the chair like strings of fresh pasta hanging in the window of a Chinese noodle shop. When she finally pulls back her rain-laden hood to reveal a smart chin-length bob, I note how her hair matches the charcoal black of her down-filled coat. She mimes taking in her surroundings through her lightly fogged glasses as she unhooks the clip cinching her waist.
I get so caught up watching her that I lose count of the citrus vodka I have flowing into the shaker tin; somehow I don’t think the giggly Cosmo-drinking lady in front of me is going to complain about a heavy pour.
Peeled and settled, the pretty newcomer smoothes down the sides of her glossy hair and rubs the end of her nose with the back of her hand. She pulls her useless glasses from her face and places them on the bartop to defog.
I feel the reality of her struggle. There’s nothing glamorous about being outside this time of year. It’s too cold to just grin and bear it without a jacket, but it's not cold enough to bring out the heavy-duty winter gear. So any nighttime stroll ends up being about as enjoyable as a cold, wet slap to the face, leaving you hot and wet underneath all those layers by the time you get to your destination…
Don’t let my choice of words fool you; even if you’re into that kind of thing, it’s not really a good time.
Brow furrowed, chin tucked, I catch it. Just for a moment, but there it is — a chink in her flawless disposition. She’s breathing through her mouth, looking down her nose, struggling with the top of her zipper. After a few good tugs, she slides the zipper down to her thighs without another hitch. I find these little glimpses of unpolished humanity, those seconds when they think no one is watching, terribly precious. And not that anyone would ever ask, but it’s one of my favorite parts of this privileged vantage point I hold here.
We lock eyes when she’s shimmying her shoulders free from the coat sleeves. I’m not sure if she can see me without her glasses until she smiles at me.
“I’ll be right with you,” I assure her, smiling back.
I jam the tumbler glass into the gaping mouth of the metal tin and shake it like the fancy oversized maraca that it is while I fill a rocks glass with ice and pour rum over the fresh cubes with my other hand.
Here I find my opportunity to extend a proper greeting to her; I have to head that way to get a martini glass for this Cosmo.
“Pretty nasty out there still, hey?” I bend to open the cooler where the glassware is kept cold while I wait for her to respond. Another one of the best things about this job is that I can always find something to do with my hands if I must talk to people. Otherwise… what would I do with my hands?
She scoffs and rubs under her lower lash lines with the flats of her thumbs to catch any makeup that may have melted down. It was just for good measure — her face is impeccable. “I hate this silly in-between season,” she says. “I’m ready for proper winter now.”
Her tone is not what I had anticipated. It cuts like a seasoned chef’s sharpened blade; clean, deep, and controlled. With just a hint of harshness from an accent I can’t quite place.
I default to my practiced laughter to agree.
“Well, we’ll do what we can to help you forget about that, at least for a short while,” I add, putting a menu down in front of her. “Do you know what you want to drink, or should I give you a minute to settle in?”
I may seem as smooth as my movements but I assure you this is all just part of a well-worn routine that took years of practice to master. Beyond this post behind my bar, I’m not much of a people person.
“Just give me a minute, maybe,” she says, stern yet nurturing like a homeroom teacher after she has put the ruler away. Then, with her horn-rimmed glasses back in place, the most curious thing happens. I look past the lenses into her eyes, and I… get stuck there. The rings around her pupils are like buffed silver washers fastening her gaze on me.
“You bet.” My syllables are too fat on my tongue and I stare at her longer than I should, but I don’t think she has noticed. I hope she hasn’t noticed. Only when I start to pry my gaze away do I become aware of the shining silver threads interspersed through the raven black of her cropped hair.
“I think my brain needs to thaw a bit first,” she adds. And while she thaws, I melt. Her dark smile doesn’t spread too far across her face but it’s still enough to throw me. I almost drop the martini glass from my hand when I trip over my own toe hurrying away, back to the couple. I catch it; I hope she didn’t.
Naturally, the couple that I'd nearly forgotten hasn’t noticed my absence either. This is both the blessing and the curse of being behind the bar. Some days, they can’t keep their eyes off you. Other times, they can’t see you at all.
I continue to sneak glances at the silver-eyed woman while I work. I pour the cloudy pink mixture into the frosty martini glass. The woman tucks her hair behind her ear to reveal a single drop pearl earring and pushes her dark glasses up a little higher on the bridge of her slender nose with her middle finger. I hook a lime on the rim of each glass. The woman absently taps a single dark painted fingernail on the laminated page in front of her.
Every movement is as fluid as the stroke of a classically trained cellist’s bow. I wonder a moment if she’s real. Just as quickly as it arises, I shove the notion away. What a silly thing to think, indeed. Of course she’s real. She’s sitting right there.
The couple thanks me with no particular grace when I present their fresh drinks on cocktail napkins before them. Without a word, I nod and clear their empty glasses, walking them to the dishwasher that sits just beyond the far edge of the bar. I steal a quick look at the grey-eyed woman as I pass by. Her dark merlot lips are pulled back from her teeth so she can bite at the end of her thumbnail without smearing her lipstick. She is scanning the menu intently enough for my lingering gaze to go unnoticed as I pass her.
I startle her when I pop back around the corner too quickly to ask her if she has decided what she wants to drink. She jumps in her seat and lays one hand flat over her chest like she’s trying to keep her heart from flying away. Again, that little crack in her icy demeanor warms me some and we laugh together. A wholesome, natural laugh this time. Although, I still anxiously busy my hands with lighting the candle in the holder in front of her while I apologize and repeat my question.
“Can I get…” Hands planted on either side of her seat, she swivels back and forth on the bar stool, eyes still locked on the menu.
She clearly does not know what she wants yet. I know the move because it’s the same as the one I pull when I’m on that side of the bar. Having been a bartender for well over a decade never made it any easier for me to make these same decisions.
I lean both my palms into the edge of the bar and study the slope of her regal nose. She pushes her glasses up to the bridge again with the same middle finger. I wait with genuine patience for her to reach a verdict.
“Oh, fuck, I don’t know.” Defeated, she throws her hands up in the air and lays her forearms on the bar, leaning in towards me. “What do I want?”
Even the way she swears so casually is enchanting. And when her blazing cold grey eyes meet mine, it’s like she is transferring the chill that she brought in from outside straight to my core. I’m nearly frozen by her effortless intensity. So mesmerized, I barely notice my grip on the bar has tightened to make my knuckles go white as the snow threatening to fall outside.
It’s almost unseemly how cliché it is, but those eyes of hers are really throwing me for a loop. The metallic sheen around her pupils seems to smolder in the candlelight, the flame reflecting back at me like embers between ashy coals in a fire-pit. Coals just like the one stuck in my throat. I’m struggling to gulp them down. But I do all the same; what other choice do I have?
“Hey, don’t look at me,” I say, trying to keep my cool. “I’m not so great with making my mind up either.”
“I don’t know why it has to be so hard…” she says. She peels off her glasses again and leaning her elbow into the bar, she props her chin on the heel of her palm, pinches the tip of her pinky’s claw between her teeth, and looks at me expectantly.
Now, contrary to popular belief, bartenders can’t scan your inner thoughts and determine your ideal drink. This is my least favorite game to play with the clientele. I don’t like how much disappointment potential it yields.
I don’t know what’s come over me; something is taking me over. It’s like this dark woman is the harbinger of a challenge made special for me. For reasons I can't fathom, I feel compelled to please her. Before I know what I’m saying, the words tumble out smoother than my knife cutting through that fresh juicy lime. “How about an Old Fashioned?”
Her eyebrows spring up to hide behind the dark fringe of her bangs as her chin lifts from her palm. “That’s one of my favorite drinks,” she says with a wry smile. “How did you know?”
I shrug. “Lucky guess.”
“I don’t believe in luck.” She crosses her arms under her breasts and leans back in her chair, looking at me from the side of one fiendish silver eye. “But I will take an Old Fashioned. Please, and thank you.”
“I don’t know.” She pauses, clenching the arm of her glasses between her teeth. “Take a guess.”
She doesn’t wink, but she might as well have.
I have to pass the beer taps to get to the whiskeys way at the other end of the bar. He hasn’t asked for it yet, but I know it’s coming… And sure enough, just as I’m about halfway through pouring his beer, John is yelling across the bar at me for another one.
Like broken clockwork.
“Yeah, John. This one’s for you.” I will my jaw to relax. In this business, you have to choose your battles. Your livelihood depends on your ability to strike a balance between commanding the human respect you deserve and paying your rent.
I put the glass down in front of him. “Oh, thanks,” he says.
“No problem, John.”
I turn my back to John to face the whiskeys. But that’s not enough to make him disappear. While I scan for the bourbon I’m looking for, John snorts some combination of cigarette residue and beer foam down his throat and grunts through a raunchy sigh. I can’t suppress my wince as he licks and smacks his lips louder than anyone has ever needed to. And then he has the gall to make a lewd comment about my lovely newcomer, comparing her to some crude memory of his late wife. I wince again in spite of myself and turn away without a word, choosing not to validate his lack of tact with any kind of response.
I catch movement from the corner of my eye. A pretty young blonde is walking from the front tables, towards the bathroom. I find the bourbon I’m looking for—I don’t know how it’s the right one, but I have no doubt in my selection. When I turn and head back to my silver-eyed woman, I notice the giggly Cosmo Lady is gone. Rum and Coke is alone, scrolling through his phone while he awaits her return. He pauses and turns, shamelessly drinking in every inch of that pretty young blonde as she walks right by him, oblivious to his lecherous gaze. I bite my tongue and shake my head so lightly that only I could notice.
“Huh?” is all I say when I put the bottle of amber liquid down in front of her. I’m still not entirely sure I didn’t just imagine the voice.
The grey-eyed lady doesn’t repeat herself. Thumbnail pinned between her teeth once again, she’s looking in the direction of Rum and Coke who has gone back to fiddling with this phone. Her head swivels slowly on its axis back to me. She glances at the bottle in my hands and looks up to sear me with her mercurial gaze. “Ah. Another good guess.”
I don’t know why I’m so chuffed but my cheeks are burning with pride for having pleased her.
I build her cocktail right in front of her so I have an excuse to look at her uninterrupted. Every subsequent glance, breath, metal ion she sends my way lights up another row of hot fluorescent lights under my skin. The rest of the room seems to pull back and away from us. Bar chatter disintegrates. The candle is the only light left. We are being consumed by the comfortable embrace of some symbolic dark. It creates a warm hazy vignette around us, devoid of any superfluous sight and sound. I watch my bar spoon hit the sides of my crystal mixing glass, but can’t hear its tell-tale clink over the deafening rush of blood drowning my eardrums.
Avoiding her eyes, I don’t say anything when I drop the black paper square down on the bartop next to her glasses and placed the glass on top of it. My hand is clammy. I can’t explain why, but I desperately need her to like it.
She thanks me and takes the glass in one hand, pinning the garnish skewer to the edge with her index finger. Raising the glass to her lips, she purses her sculpted burgundy petals around the rim and leans her whole body into the first sip. I detect the slight, satisfied dip of her shoulders as they sink down towards the floor. She leaves no dark stain on the rim of the glass. Flawless.
“It’s perfect,” she says, carefully placing the glass back down in the very middle of the napkin. “Thank you.”
I’m overwhelmed by her praise, however subtle it may be, but I can’t even find it in me to say “You’re welcome.” My words are mired in the pit of my rolling gut. I want to say something clever, open-ended, engaging. But the sudden, heavy onset of my pull towards her has me all caught up in a net of apprehension.
I don’t want to disappoint.
John decides suddenly that I have neglected him for too long. He is yelling sports commentary at me from the other end of the bar to get my attention. John knows that I don’t care for sports but that has never mattered to him.
“Man, can you believe he didn’t make that pass?”
I scoff at just how apt his choice of words is.
What is happening to me? I never hit on customers. It’s not my style. The panic surrounding my fear of rejection is generally far more powerful than any intrigue a fleeting, albeit very striking face might bring.
But now, tonight, I do. I do want to make that pass. I want to take that shot.
Fuck it. I’m going to make a move on this stunning creature, anxiety be damned. The worst that can happen is she says no and I go back to enduring John like I do every other Tuesday night.
The thrill of resolve shoots through me like quicksilver climbing a fevered thermometer. I look back at her. She’s scanning the bottles behind the bar as if she actually cares what the labels have to say. I move before I can triple-guess myself.
“I was going to ask you if you wanted a shot,” I say, already pouring the caramelized gold liquid freely into a pair of matching glasses between us with every ounce of bravado I can muster. “But I guessed that you’d be ready to accept.”
She doesn’t say anything. She just drags the blackened cherry off the end of her plastic skewer, dark lips pulled away from her teeth again, and lets her devilish smile linger.
We clink our glasses together and welcome the warmth of the firewater into the marrow our bones. The sun rises a little more around the dark pits of her pupils.
“Do you smoke?” she asks.
“Me neither. You want to anyways?”
I tell the busboy to watch the bar, that the couple should be fine, to ignore John if he says anything dumb, that I’ll be right back.
Wrapped in our coats, we step out into the eerie silence of a Tuesday night uptown. Since the sun set, the first dampened cotton sheet of snow has fallen, tucking the streets in for its first winter night of the season. The street-lamps dye our hooded shadows a pale orange against the sparkling blue-white of the ground that absorbs our every step. I take her by her gloved hand and lead her around to the back of the building where the smokers like to hide on their breaks.
I can’t see her because my hood has eliminated most of my peripheral vision; the gentle squeeze of her hand in mine reassures me that she is still there. That she is real.
We wedge ourselves into a corner where two partitions of brick wall meet, hiding in the limited shadows. The kitchen guys are doing a load of laundry right now. The billowy trail of grey steam that smells of dryer sheets and hot dust spills from the vent, creating a convenient pocket of swirling warmth around us.
Her eyes almost glow at me from the brimmed shadow of her hood. I hesitate, wondering if I should say something to fill the silence, but I guess that it’s not necessary anymore. I can’t explain it, but it’s becoming more and more clear that I know exactly where we’re going to end up before we even get there.
She clasps her glove around my forearm, and I swear, I can feel the heat of her hand burning through the sleeve of my coat. Her eyes are two silver rings shining back at me and the urge to taste her is overwhelming. She has evoked something I'd forgotten, if I ever knew. I hardly recognize myself; I have never been more sure of myself.
I pull her in toward me and we melt into a kiss. The rims of our heavy hoods meet and meld, hiding us momentarily from the chill by a makeshift cave. I can taste the aromatic bitters on her tongue in the dark.
When I start to pull away from that first kiss, my heart flips and a hot shiver flickers down my neck. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that I saw the silver glowing back at me despite the shadows. A trick of the light, I’m sure.
I push the hood away from her face. Her nose is pink and her glasses are fogged up again from the steam of our breaths and she is quite possibly the most beautiful woman I’ve ever laid my lips on. My bare hand cools in the outside air, but her cheeks are warm and welcoming. I tuck a length of her hair behind her ear for her and heat my palm on her face, in the darkness just beyond her collar.
She tugs at her finicky zipper for me and exposes her pale throat to the night.
“Ah,” I explore her eyes for confirmation. “I guess you want me to kiss your neck.”
She kisses me twice before reaffirming her answer. “You always guess right.”
I revel in these feelings of success.
I accept her invitation and bury my face into her neck shadows to taste more of her flesh. She goes rigid only to melt again when my cool cheek meets her fleeting warmth. The way she laughs away the shock stirs a wild wonderment in me. I feel empowered by her radiance. Does that even make sense?
My filter lifts fully. “You are lovely,” I say when I come up for air, breathy but without hesitation.
She slips her leather fingers between the buttons on my coat. “I guess you might want me to touch you here.”
“Mm…” I pry my coat’s lapels apart and guide her hand to my chest, which swells as she runs her fingers over the emblem on my t-shirt. She traces the line from my sternum all the way to burrow under my ear and grasp the back of my neck. I shiver again and melt into her palm. “There especially.”
Her smile is wicked right before she kisses me again.
Lips locked, I reach down, all the way down to get under the edge of her coat. My hand moves with cautious respect to the dark between her legs. I meet the heat radiating from her well before I come anywhere near touching her.
“I guess I’m doing something right here,” I whisper into her mouth.
She purrs, then mewls when I cup the source of her warmth in my palm. I rub back and forth, pressing the seam of her leggings to the contour of her slit, the swollen bump of her clit. Her face is perfection when her head tips back and breath hitches. She swells and puffs against me. There is a thrill in this almost-but-not-quite, fumbling in the dark, in our own little corner of the universe.
I feel so seen without the vulnerability that tends to come along with that.
She throws her arms around my neck and raises one leg to open up to me. I want to give her more, everything I can offer her. I lean in, pressing her into the wall so she can't fall away from me. Kissing me back with fervor, she sucks my tongue into the haze of her mouth. It’s impossible, but I feel like she has devoured my entire being, binding us together. We’re so close that I lose my own breath when she holds hers.
Her jaw drops open and my tongue lolls from her clutches. Despite the layers between us, the build is obvious and I feel myself rising along with her. Her dampness has soaked right through the material to my fingers.
I sneak my hand past every drape of material until I find her waistband and slide down between it and her silky smooth flesh. She whines, pressing her skull into the wall like it’s trying to swallow her, as I slide the flat of my hand down the front of her pants. She is impossibly wet, coating my fingers with slick upon contact.
I watch her unravel as I consume every contour with like a voracious, unsighted reader. My fingers lick up and down between her folds until I am covered in her. I dip into her once, twice, deeper. Her hips rock in time to my thrusts, encouraging me not to waver, grinding into my palm to slow my pace.
I slip out to circle her clit, softer and more sultry than I have with anyone before her. The rhythms come so naturally, it’s like I’ve always known her. I'm moved by her openness with me.
The tension radiating from her body thickens the air so much that it feels hot in my lungs. Her silver eyes roll so far into the back of her skull that the whites go black. She is terrifyingly gorgeous; I have never known such reverence.
It’s upon us now. She grunts and groans and bites down hard—oh my god, that’s deep—into my shoulder, until she collapses, melts into me, whimpering into my flesh.
As if she has passed her dizziness onto me, through me, turning every nerve ending white-hot. Like her orgasm has become mine too. The sensation overtakes me so completely that my eyes roll back with hers and everything goes blank.
“What a great play!” John hoots. “Wow. Even with the way this game has been going, I never would have guessed that one would have panned out.”
I shake my head like I’m clearing an Etch-a-Sketch screen and look down at the bottle of whiskey in my hand. My mouth is dry and my feet feel heavy.
I rub my shoulder and grab two shot glasses from the counter as I walk with inexplicable conviction to the other end of the bar where the lone woman sits.
She looks up at me with her steely eyes and grins wide like she already knows exactly what I’m going to say, but it doesn’t stop me from saying it.
“Do you want to take a shot with me?”
My laughter is so light and twinkly that even I almost believe it.