A Few Drinks After Work

You’re standing at the bar, trying to relax, trying to lighten up and dump a hard day. But you’re too stiff, too awkward, too uncomfortable. Your strained smile grates on you, but you can’t seem to do anything about it. All night, you’ve been standing too straight. You’re wound up so tight; you’d think it’s a sin to slouch.

Your friends bustle around you, in a rough semi-circle that stretches from the bar to the far wall. You’re smack bang in the middle. Trapped.

Strangers jostle you as they try to push passed, pressing through the scrum, heading across the room. They bump into you. They knock your arms. They do it again and again. Each time, a little of your drink spills out. Eventually, there’s more of it on the floor than there is in your glass. You idly wonder whether it’s worth ordering another.

These strangers toss envious looks at your friends’ easy cheer. At their spirited talk and boisterous conversation. At their loud, easy laughter.

And then they look at you and their envy dies. They look at your tight lips, your faraway stare, your hangdog face, and they keep on walking – suddenly disheartened, smiling sadly, not really knowing why. The thought of someone not enjoying the party, not having a good time, not whooping it up – it’s a thought not worth holding on to.

So they forget your melancholy face and pick up where they left off, before they saw you standing at the bar, sad and unsmiling. Alone, despite all the company you keep.

Your friends crack jokes and tell tall-tales and you’re always just a beat or two behind. You wonder whether there’s something wrong with you or something wrong with them. Whatever it is, you feel like time for you is a little slower than it is for everyone else. But still, you try to keep up, laughing when everyone else laughs.

It all feels forced. You carry on regardless, your joy hollow and false. Not that anyone seems to notice.

And then, from the corner of your eye, you see her walk into the room. It’s just a glimpse – a flash of dark hair; the bright splash of a colourful summer frock; twinkling light reflecting off simple, tasteful jewellery. All on the peripheral edge of your vision. Despite yourself, you can’t help but turn around, look harder, see her disappear into the crowd.

Now, you’re normally not much of a perv. You’re not really the type to stare. You’d die of shame if you were caught out.

But this time you can’t help yourself. The hubbub of your friends slowly deadens to little more than a dull hum. It’s constant and steady, but low and muted. A far away ocean. A storm on the horizon. Whatever; it’s nothing to you. Your eyes just scan back and forth and back and forth. You wring your hands and jiggle your legs. Looking, looking, looking.

You give up. The room is packed, there are people everywhere, your friends are getting in the way and blocking the view.

For you, it’s just another one of those nights. So what else can you do? Order another drink, get this one down the hatch quickly. To calm your nerves, maybe cheer yourself up. To give yourself something to do. And you drink it too fast and feel a little light-headed but push on regardless. You decide to have another. One more can’t hurt. One more never hurt anyone.

You can’t catch the bartender’s eye. Taking out a twenty and waving it around, you still can’t catch his eye. You watch him walk straight passed you.

Suddenly, someone touches your shoulder. Gently, softly. You’re so surprised that you drop the twenty you’re holding. It falls to the floor behind the bar, coming to rest in a pool of spilt liquor. A quiet voice murmurs something, and the bartender appears from nowhere. He reaches down, picks up the note, washes it off, dries it, passes it over to you.

He looks to the left of you the whole time, at something or someone just behind you. He ignores you completely.

Before you can turn and look at what he’s staring at, someone touches your shoulder again. You’re not so surprised this time, and you shrug it off. And then a quiet voice asks you if you’d like a drink. You turn around slowly. You’re almost wary, unused to being offered drinks. You brace yourself, expecting it be some desperado your friends are trying to set you up with.

She stands there, radiant, beaming, smiling at you. It’s a smile full of warmth and laughter and happiness.

She asks again if you’d like a drink. She touches your arm. Softly, subtly, so that you barely seem to notice. But you do, and you return her smile, hiding your nerves and your doubts and your worries. You introduce yourself and your voice doesn’t shake at all. She guesses at your drink of choice and gets it right. You toast each other, slowly making chitchat.

And then it’s your turn to buy her a drink. In that brief moment while you wait for her to respond, nameless panic rushes in.

She accepts your offer. You toast each other again. The chitchat goes on, more drinks are bought – one for one, always taking it in turns. You’re surprised by how comfortable you feel, at how easy the vibe is, at how well the two of you get along. She touches you occasionally, slowly growing more and more brazen. You return her discreet affection in kind.

At some point, the two of you end up kissing deeply. You hold each other tight. You keep kissing. Neither one of you can stop touching the other.

The bartender eventually asks you both to move away from the bar. You find an empty booth in the corner of the room. The kissing continues, the groping begins, it starts to get hot and heavy. Strangers ogle you, stopping and staring. You just keep at it; like horny teenagers, neither of you care. Inevitably, it becomes necessary for you both to leave. You both decide to go back to yours.

Just before you leave, you excuse yourself to go to the bathroom. You need to freshen your lipstick and smooth the creases in your skirt.

(Originally published in Inscribe, January 2012)

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