by Gregory Tarsiscis Janetka
It was late afternoon when I entered the bar. The sun was still high and shone through the small square windows, hitting the rough white walls and reflecting throughout. The place was inside an old hotel dating from the 30s. Perhaps even earlier. It was unclear if its current incarnation was a rare find to casually gloat about on social media or a setting within which to sneak the other woman in order to partake in dirty filthy things amidst blindingly fresh white linens. Maybe both. It smelled of wisteria and the nouveau riche.
There was no one around and I was wondering if I should leave when the bartender appeared, flashed a patented hospitality smile, and offered me a menu. I took a seat in the middle of the bar and asked for a gin rickey. She was unfamiliar with the drink so I told her what was in it, but she consulted a book anyway.
“Do you have a preference on the gin?” she asked.
“Uh, the most economical? Is that a good way to say it?”
She laughed. Her eyes were sharp. In fact her entire face was sharp, a pleasing collection of right angles, a tribute to symmetry and the beauty of simple, ordered things. She had dark brown hair that was cut close, but not shaved, on the right side, with the other side reaching her chin. It was tucked behind her left ear but kept falling forward. In her right ear were several piercings, including a long steel barbell. All of the lines she cut as she spoke, laughed, moved, were clean and fluid.
I started a mundane conversation, asking if it had been dead all day. Being just the two of us I figured that was the thing to do. Plus, I wanted to. It had been a long, long time since I’d spoke to a pretty stranger.
“I came in at three and was able to get my prep done. I hate it when I come in and it’s busy and nothing’s been done, you know?” I didn’t know but nodded as if I’ve suffered the same fate hundreds of times. “But yeah, you’re my first customer.”
“Not great for tips but nice to ease into the day,” I offered.
“Yeah. I had to be up early but I’m definitely a night person. Even when I’m up early it’s not like I’m really there, you know?”
“Just kind of going through the motions.”
“Wait for the sun to go down, you’ll feel better.”
We shot the shit like this for some time, her constantly polishing glasses. Or it might’ve been the same glass the entire time, everything felt like I was in a game of Three-card Monte. Occasionally she stepped away to answer the phone but otherwise our conversation was uninterrupted. We talked about math, history, and cheating on tests, tattoos and piercings and her recent trip back to San Francisco for the wedding of her childhood best friend. I was heading out there in a couple weeks to see my own best friend and asked her for suggestions on places worth checking out. She told me to go to Baker Beach, Mount Davidson, and the bars on Polk Street. I told her I didn’t like doing much of the normal tourist things and she assured me that these were things I’d enjoy. The phone rang and, feeling buoyed up by her and the day that was gone and the night yet to come, I looked away and finished my drink.
“Another round?” she asked.
I hesitated, studying the few ice cubes in the bottom of the glass. I had enough in my pocket but really couldn’t afford it. Noting that we still had the place to ourselves, and that there were no signs of anyone else coming anytime soon, I said sure, one more.
I watched her hands as she took out a new glass and filled it to the top with ice. The sharp but clean movements of her entire body floored me. I’ve always been a wreck of a human being when it comes to coordination of any sort and greatly admire it in others. She measured out the gin and poured in two shots. Then she added a shot of fresh lime juice and filled the rest with soda water.
“Hold on, I have to get more limes for the garnish.”
She disappeared backstage and I looked about. The dozen or so tables held signs advertising a weekly Sunday jazz brunch—just in time for exiting church goers. I counted six in a four block radius during the hour I’d spent wandering. White candles stood unlit. The uneven walls gave an old intimacy to the place, evoking the original Chicago aristocracy that fled to the suburbs.
“There you go,” she said, placing the glass before me.
I turned to see the finished drink. A lime sat on the rim and she had manipulated the straw wrapper into an artistic spiral. I was going to ask how she did it when the phone rang again. I took a sip and decided, rationally and logically, to nurse this one a little longer than the first, which by this time had left me feeling quite warm.
She hung up the phone with an audible grunt and as she turned back towards me her face was contorted in a vicious manner as she rolled her eyes.
“God, every phone call is the same. I’ve already answered the exact same question thirty times. ‘Do you have any openings for Mother’s Day brunch?’ No, we’ve been booked for weeks. I called my boss to make sure. We’ve got a couple spots at night but nothing during the day. People always think I’m hiding something, you know? Like there’s secret reserved spots or something. Guess that’s how it is with desire.”
I was wondering if she felt comfortable with me or if she would’ve spoken in the same manner to anyone. What came out of my mouth, though, was, “Shit. When is Mother’s Day?” I knew exactly when it was but feared a lull in the conversation. I often ask questions I know the answer to, it’s an easy way to make someone feel more important than you and tells me how much to trust someone.
“Okay. I’ve got some time then,” I said, faking relief.
“Yeah, you’re fine. Between that and Easter the other week it’s been crazy.”
“Did you have to work that?”
“No, I’m the golden one. I got it off and then after I did my manager said ‘no one else off on Easter.’ Ha. But so I figure I’m guaranteed Mother’s Day.”
“Yeah, gotta pay your dues,” I said and took a drink. “I’ve never taken my mom out on Mother’s Day. It always seems like a hassle, much nicer to stay at home and make food. I mean, I cook for her, do something special.”
“Exactly. You can be comfortable, at home, in your pajamas. If I ever have kids that’s what I want. None of this bullshit,” she said, indicting the whole place with a grand sweep of her arm. I didn’t see her pick it up but she had been polishing a glass again.
“So when do you think people are crazier? Easter or Mother’s Day?”
“As far as here?”
She put down the glass, wiped her hands on her apron despite them being clean and dry, picked up the glass again and continued polishing.
“Definitely Mother’s Day. Dads are always stressing out over it, you know? Getting flowers and complaining about how they ordered twenty minutes ago and have no food. I’m like, ‘Hello, it takes me that long to get it in the system.
Do you not see everyone else waiting?’ Yeah, definitely Mother’s Day.”
“I guess guys have something to prove,” I said, gesturing with my glass.
“Exactly. On Easter I think they leave stress and that stuff at church or whatever and be done with it. Everyone just wants to stuff themselves, get drunk, and pretend it’s somehow about Jesus.”
“Right,” I said.
She leaned against the back of the counter, her hands behind her. I didn’t see what she did with the glass. She was deliciously slender. Realizing how far forward I was on the bar, I leaned back in my chair, my feet pushing against the metal railing as if we were oppositely charged magnets.
I took a drink. Two-thirds was gone. So much for slowing down.
As I put the glass on the bar the remaining ice made a soft clink and I noticed the music playing. After a moment I realized it was from a French film. One of my favorite films, in fact. Replaying images from it in my head made me happy and knowing that I would now also associate the music with this moment made me even happier.
A loud, uncovered cough announced a man who lumbered into the bar, breaking my reverie. His hair was slicked back and even though he wasn’t that old, he wore a blue sport coat decades out of fashion. She greeted him. He was the 5:30, he said, and he was waiting for his wife. She asked if he wanted a drink. He ordered a glass of red wine and pulled out a twenty dollar bill. She told him they could put everything on one check with dinner and he took back the twenty and, winking, laid down a five that I imagine left a grease stain on the polished wood.
The phone rang and she had the same Mother’s Day conversation again.
I was sitting back, rolling a piece of ice around in my mouth and, apparently, smiling.
“What?” She asked.
“What? You got a look.”
“I’m content I guess,” I said. “Pleasantly content.”
I was feeling very good by this time and continued on.
“Contentment is rare, I don’t often find it. Much easier to be happy I’ve found than content. But I like contentment better.”
“I mean, you don’t have the past or the present, only this moment and contentment in it.”
“I don’t know…give me unbridled happiness,” she said as she leaned towards me, her hair falling forward like icicles melting on a rain gutter. “I’d much rather have that. But that usually involves lots of drinking. That’s in the moment, not worrying about the consequences of tomorrow and how sick you’ll be. Even if it’s not real happiness, it sure as hell feels good.”
“Yeah, I’ve done plenty of that. No, I don’t mean I want to settle, but even when I’m happy I find I’m always trying to be more happy, you know? ‘One more drink and I’ll feel even better’ and that kind of thinking. But like right now, here, I’m content and there’s absolutely nothing I want other than to exist right now.”
She smiled, pushing her hair back behind her left ear and shifting her weight onto her other foot.
A trio of women entered and she tended to them. Then a barback came on duty. He refilled the ice and brought out bottles of champagne. The noise drowned out the music. I strained to hear it but it was lost. She reappeared when I was finishing the last bit of my drink.
“Another or you wanna settle up?”
“Settle up,” I said.
She already had the receipt printed and immediately put it in front of me. The speed of the transaction left me nauseous and I needed a minute to steady myself. I looked at the total. It was more than I expected, but damn if I was going to give it a second thought. She took my card and brought me a copy.
“Thanks. Haveagreatafternoon,” she said in her fluid, clean manner.
“You too,” I said, putting ten dollars in cash on the bar and throwing on my jacket.
As I was walking out more people were flooding in and she was talking to the barback. I caught her eye and waved.
“Good luck with Mother’s Day!” I said.
Just then the phone rang.
G. Tarsiscis Janetka is a writer from Chicago whose work has been featured in XRAY, Heartwood, The Phoenix, and other publications. More of his writings can be found at gregorytjanetka.com. He is currently seeking representation for his first novel.