“Can I get another glass of whatever this is I’m drinking?”
My bartender nods a quick down-and-up like pronto and turns to grab a bottle from the lineup of usual suspects. He’s here every Tuesday and Thursday and sometimes on Fridays when the place gets really busy, which has become more common now that the summer season – shitty as it’s been – has set in. The bar is nothing to write home about, but I enjoy the food on the few days during the week when I feel like eating.
When my bartender turns, he leans into the bar with his left hand and pours the rest of the bottle into my glass with his right. I watch my glass go from empty to three-quarters full. He winks, letting his left hand support his weight, and when I notice how his arm flexes I get a shiver and a flash of a feeling somewhere below my belly button. And then of course comes the twisting in my gut that has threatened to wring me out ever since I became The Worst Person in the World.
“It’s a Chianti. You like?”
I try to summon a smile, or at least a nod of appreciation, but nothing comes because now I’m thinking about that scene in The Silence of the Lambs with Hannibal Lecter and that fucked-up cage mask. Typical. Hot bartender flirts, I think of a cannibal. Luckily, my bartender knows my frown. Two chilled shot glasses appear in front of me like a magic trick for sad drunks.
“Bella. Smile. Have a nice sweet treat.”
He fills the glasses with the limoncello that they make special because it’s the Italian part of town and it’s summer and why the hell not.
“To miss Zoe’s North End adventures,” he says. We clink our glasses together and drink. The shot levels me out like it’s supposed to. Good job, shot.
“I’m half Italian,” I say. “Did I ever tell you that?”
“Bella, you did not! The North or the South?”
My mom’s side is actually Sicilian, but I don’t want to get into specifics because then he’ll ask me for regions and cities and it’ll become a whole big thing. I’m not even sure why I brought it up.
“Me, I’m from Naples. Home of the pizza.”
“I heard Naples is beautiful.” I’m lying. I heard Naples is terrifying.
“I take you next time. You meet my whole family.”
The rest of the Chianti goes down hot and fast. I’m drunk and feeling pretty alright in my jeans and thick grey hoody because it’s Boston and it’s 50 degrees in June. I swivel in my chair and look at the crowd. There’s a couple by the window wearing nightclub outfits, a group of ladies with colorful drinks, and the customary table of important men in important business suits eating important meals. One of the men sees me scanning the room and the next thing I know he’s standing at the bar leaning next to me. Men are always leaning.
“Your hair is killer,” says the man. “Love the curls.” And here we go.
“Thank you. It takes a lot of work.”
“I bet. You mind if I…?”
I regard this man as he reaches to touch my hair. He’s wearing a very black suit and a very blue tie. He’s not bad looking, but he’s not great looking either. His hair is cut high and tight, he’s got a big thick body, and his teeth are just a little too white. He seems like the type of guy who drives a mid-sized Dodge.
“Actually, I’d prefer if you didn’t.”
The man stands up straight and puts up his hands in mock surrender. “Ha, okay, fair enough. But can I just say, you’re a knock-out. Just a natural knock-out.”
My bartender comes our way. “A drink, sir?”
“I’ll have what she’s having.” He grins. “I’m Steve, by the way.”
“Zoe. Nice to meet you.”
“The pleasure’s all mine.”
He sticks out his hand. I give him a firm handshake.
“Me and the guys are in town for a conference,” he says. “Never been to this city. What’s the scene?”
“Well, you can go to an Irish bar and get completely shitfaced with a bunch of townies, or you can go to a college bar and take home a chubby 19-year-old.”
My bartender snickers from behind the bar and pours more Chianti into my glass. “I suggest staying around here,” I continue, taking a lazy sip of wine. “You can reenact scenes from the Revolution.” It’s a drunk thing to say and the guy – Steve – raises his eyebrows at me. I turn back to my glass because surely I’ve confused him and who cares anyway, but then I hear him laughing to himself.
“She’s a beauty and she’s funny! Come have dinner with us.”
I examine his group more closely. They’re all pretty much wearing the same suit and a different variation of the same load tie. There are five or six bottles of wine scattered across the table and maybe a bottle of scotch and so much calamari it’s like a fisherman’s wet dream.
“Seems like you guys are having a blast on your own.”
“Well, we all work at the same company but we hardly ever see each other. We’re regional managers, see. Different regions.”
“Me? Oh, I’m Midwest.”
“Nice,” I say, trying to think of a state in the Midwest. “So, this is like a family reunion without the weird drunk uncle.”
Steve cocks his head, that Cheshire cat grin creeping back across his lips. “You could say that. Or maybe we’re all the weird drunk uncle. But none of us know this city, so come join us. It’d be my pleasure.” He keeps talking about his pleasure like it’s something he keeps in his briefcase. “Besides, you look hungry.”
I can’t tell if this is supposed to be a pick-up line or an insult. Either way, it’s probably true. I’ve lost about 20% of my body weight since I became The Worst Person in the World three months ago and stopped eating. When I look in the mirror, it’s all hip bones and clavicle and a really big bush because who cares about waxing anymore. Today I haven’t even had my daily meal – an apple and some oatmeal – just this Chianti, and there’s no food left in my apartment. Well, the apartment that I emergency sublet from my friend’s boyfriend, that is.
“Come on. No strings attached.”
I eye my bartender for his advice and he sort of shrugs like hell, why not? My bartender is way cuter than Midwestern Steve. I’d rather stay at the bar with him, but he’s busy and two blondes in short dresses just walked in and I can already see the chilled glasses of limoncello he’s preparing for them. Plus, I can feel my stomach growling. I’m hungry, for once. Famished, actually.
“Okayyyy, if you insist.”
I slide off my chair and head to the table. Steve sets me up with a seat between him and another guy.
“Well hello! We were hoping ‘ol Stevie would invite you to our table,” says the other guy. “Order whatever you want. It’s our pleasure.”
Around the table there’s Steve the Midwest manager, Ron the Florida manager, Tim the West Coast manager, and further down there’s a Texas manager and a New York manager whose names I can’t make out. They are all telling stories about the company. It’s a mystery what the company actually does. Maybe something to do with plastics? Buying and selling plastics? I like New York the best. His suit doesn’t look like it’s made out of construction paper and his hair seems pretty normal, not plugged into the top of his head like Texas. New York is sitting all the way down the table, but he glances over and smiles from time to time while I eat calamari and my surf and turf special.
“A gift from the bar,” my bartender says, suddenly appearing at the table with a tray of limoncello shots. He offers the glasses around the table and throws me another one of his little winks.
“Seems like you made quite an impression on our bartender,” says Steve with his big cheesy smile.
“I come here a lot.”
“Alone?” asks Florida Ron.
I shrug and smile. “Sure. Why not?”
Texas hoots. “Sassy! Independent lady!”
We all finish our limoncellos and then New York wants to know where we should go next. They all look over at me like I’m some kind of expert on Boston.
“I don’t know this area well, to be honest. Maybe there’re a few spots down Hanover a bit.”
We end up sitting outside at a rooftop bar, which really makes no sense because it’s starting to rain. After a while Florida Ron and the guy from the West Coast go back to the hotel, so now it’s just me, Steve, Texas, and New York. I switch from red wine to gin and tonics because someone once told me clear drinks are better for easing a hangover, though who knows if it’ll even make a difference at this point.
“So, I bet you get into all kinds of trouble here in the big city,” says Steve, taking a huge swig from his bottle of Budweiser.
“Boston’s not really a big city. And I haven’t gone out in months, except for that spot you found me in.”
“I don’t believe you.” He raises his eyebrows. “I bet you know all the bartenders.”
“You’re so sexy, you could be a pro if you wanted.”
I cock my head. “You mean, like a prostitute? That’s fucking rich,” I say, remembering the period-stained underwear I put on this morning because I haven’t done laundry in a month.
“C’mon, a girl like you…”
New York looks at me and rolls his eyes. Sorry, he mouths.
“I’m sure you’ve never met a girl like me in your whole fuckin’ life.” I down my drink and set the empty glass in front of me. “What’s your deal anyway, Steve?”
Steve smirks. “My deal? Hmm… well let’s see… I work, I golf, I sail when I can get away. And,” he hunches forward, “want to know a secret?”
“Sure. Why not.”
“My girlfriend, she actually kinda looks like you.”
“Wow, really?” I say, wide-eyed, because the drinks are making me playful.
“Yep. Same complexion and everything.”
“Give it a rest man,” says New York.
“And are you married to someone who looks like me, too?”
Steve stops smiling. “What do you mean?”
“C’mon, a guy like you…”
Steve sits up straight like a pinned insect, eyes darting around the bar as he rubs his ring-less ring finger. It’s fun to watch for a second or two, but then it gets kind of sad, so I throw him a friendly eye-roll and a give him a little kick under the table like hey buddy loosen up, we’re just chummin’ around here.
“My wife’s a brunette, if you must know.” Steve stands and finishes his beer. “Enough talk. Where’re we going next, Sassy-pants?”
We’re all drunk enough to make dumb choices and decide to just make a night of it at the Faneuil Hall bars. I tell them this area is like Boston’s two nightlife scenes rolled into one shit-show, which makes them happy and excited. They need to get out more. Texas takes a detour to “score some blow,” which is never going to happen, not in this town, and when we get to the bar of course Steve starts chatting up a wasted college girl. So now it’s just me and New York. He finds us two seats in the corner of the bar and orders me a gin and tonic. It’s the first time I’ve really looked at his face close up. He has a wide nose and green eyes and sandy brown hair and the beginnings of a ruddy beard.
“Did you know if you have a red beard and different color hair you have the Neanderthal gene?”
He leans in. “I did not know that.”
“Yeah. It’s pretty common, actually.”
His arm rests on the bar and he moves in closer, maybe because there’s a loud group of idiots next to us or maybe just because.
“What else do you know?” he asks.
I think, like really search my mind for facts. “Well. I know that the Antonov An-225 Mriya is the largest airplane in the world. Like, ever created.”
“Yeah. It weighs over 640 tons.”
New York considers this.
“Why do you go out alone? With that kind of knowledge, you must have tons of poor fools knocking down your door.”
I look around the bar. It’s a typical Thursday night crowd: guys wearing Red Sox caps, girls wearing too much concealer. Not a brown face in sight. And everyone’s singing along to Journey.
“I hate this fucking city.”
New York nods. “It’s pretty… what’s the word… single note. If you ask me.”
I feel warm and normal next to this guy who I barely know, in our agreement on such a fundamental truth that no one seems to understand but me. There’s definitely diversity here, they say. You just aren’t going to the right neighborhoods, they say. You don’t know much, do you? he used to say. You’re making a fool out of yourself why are you so pathetic, he used to say. And my momentary ease is just that. Momentary.
I finish the rest of my drink and wave the bartender over for another.
“I go out alone because I broke up with my boyfriend a few months ago. Well, he kicked me out, actually.”
New York takes the straw out of his glass and places it on his bar napkin.
“He kicked you out, just like that?”
I nod, remembering our last phone conversation. “Yeah.” My shoulders hunch, guarding my heart from the inevitable questions.
“Wow. What a dick.”
I shake my head. “No, no. It was my fault. I’m the worst.”
New York groans. “Come on, gimme a break.”
“Are you worse than Jeffrey Dahmer? Worse than Hitler? They’re the worst.”
A group pushes their way to the bar, spilling beer as they go.
“But people like you and me? We just do shit. Some of it’s good. Some of it’s not so good. That’s what we’re supposed to do. I bet this guy was boring, anyway.” He signals the bartender, who still hasn’t noticed that our glasses are empty. “You should get out of Boston. Move to New York. You’d love it.”
I think of my ex and the expression that would cross his face whenever I brought upleaving Boston. The way he’d smile without really smiling, mouth curved like a watermelon slice, eyes cool and clear. It was never a real conversation. It was a game we’d trot out from time to time, after a vacation or when it snowed in May. The maze always ended where it began.
“How do you know I’d love it?”
New York’s green eyes glint in that wicked way reserved for troublemakers. “Because I know. Someone like you? You belong in the best city in the world.”
Then he rests his hand on mine and taps my wrist and the skin-on-skin percussion does something to me, sends little waves up my spine and down my jeans. I’m like a computer in the midst of a restart, revving up bit by bit, tap by tap, pulse pulse pulse. I’m almost there, almost at 100% me again, and then I get a notion in my sloshy brain that maybe New York is right and maybe everything’s not so one-sided and what does that mean anyway, to be the worst. I press my thighs together and taste the wetness pooling under my tongue and feel the memory of a feeling, how I used to feel before the relationship even started, when I didn’t feel trapped and I didn’t feel guilty and I didn’t feel shame for being who I wanted to be.
The bartender finally arrives with our next round. New York gives my wrist a squeeze and I look at him and now our eyes are tangled together. I tilt forward in my sticky stool and whisper something funny in his ear about other things I know, but midway through my ramble on Neptune’s moons I decide to suck on his earlobe instead.
“Ugh, are you serious?” he murmurs.
I giggle a little bit, so close that the hairs inside his ear tickle my lips. I know he can feel that somewhere below his belly button because I can feel it, too.
“Let’s make out,” I say. It’s the only thing to say.
“Jesus Christ. Yes.”
We hop over the late June puddles, tripping over old cabbage and carrots from last weekend’s Haymarket, and duck into an alley. I press my back against a brick wall and New York leans into me with one hand propping him up against the wall and the other hand wrapped just above my waist.
“Where’d you come from?” he murmurs.
I think of how to answer. I came from Baltimore, I came from my Mom and my Dad, I came from the mid 80’s and best friends and a five-year relationship that left me for road kill. That seems like a mouthful, so I fill his mouth with my tongue instead.
And we are kissing. We are kissing and kissing. We are kissing and touching over suit pants and old jeans. We are touching and smiling and laughing in the rain, in an alley that stinks of beer and old food. We are kissing and touching and smiling and laughing in a disgusting alley until two in the morning.
“Come back to my hotel.”
It’s tempting. But it’s too late and it’s too soon.
“I would, but I have an 8 a.m. call tomorrow.”
He pulls back and chuckles into the sky. “Wow. Not a pro? I could have sworn…”
The next morning, I have a raging hangover.
Ryan Barrett hails from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her professional background is in creative direction. She has worked at advertising agencies in Boston, Chicago, New York City, and Philadelphia. Ryan’s stories and essays have appeared in The Huffington Post, Philly Daily News, Word Riot, The Artful Dodge (forthcoming), and she has been profiled by The Washington Post and Politico. An avid traveler, Ryan currently lives and writes in the south of France.