she couldn’t pay the tab

I’m drinking and writing at a Brickell Ave bar tonight when a beautiful woman comes in wearing a small black dress and starts wafting around, checking out various positions at the counter, trying to figure where she wants to sit…

Eventually she takes a stool between two pairs of men. Both pairs are strangers to one another. 

This woman in the black dress sits there straightbacked and orders a shot of tequila and then waits for it patiently with her good posture grace and poise…

And the men on either side of her are looking. 

They’re trading glances.

They’re leaning toward their respective buddies and conferring. No need to guess what they’re saying.

Eventually the tequila shot comes and she thanks the bartender with a big smile and lifts the tall skinny shot glass with her pinky out and tosses it back without a grimace. Then she lifts a mannered finger to summon the bartender again and order a cocktail.

Cocktail’s on its way. 

The closest man on her right starts talking to her about how well she took that shot. 

The woman in the black dress chuckles in a ladylike way and makes playful gestures with her shoulders. Says something flirty-sounding and then faces forward.

When it becomes clear that the man on her right has exhausted his attempt, the closest man on her left leans over, and makes a remark. Laughing.

She laughs back. Tosses her hair.

Here comes that cocktail.

She takes the drink and makes a quick suggestive task of extracting the straw from its paper sheath, looking at the men on either side of her as she does it. 

Now, to give you an idea of the layout: I’m sitting behind her, on a high-top. And every now and then, in a not particularly conspicuous way, she looks back at me. And she smiles.

I wave at one point because she’s making such a show of it. I don’t want this attention but I’m blushing.

The woman in the black dress shouts to me, but I can’t hear her over the music, the general roar of conversation, so I just smile and give a thumbs up. She shouts some more. Projects her voice to ask me what I’m typing. I tell her I’m grading some papers. She says, “Oh that’s nice!” 

I make my disinterest pretty clear and eventually she faces forward and finishes her cocktail and orders another shot, clacking her nails on the counter as though to hasten it. She looks anxious. When the shot is delivered she steps down from her stool and walks past me, out the door, to smoke a cigarette–hitting me with a long sultry stare as she passes.

A cigarette only lasts so long. Eventually she comes back, holding the empty shot glass upside down, twirling it, and she stops beside me at the high top. 

Shot by Sam Falk at TGI Fridays in NYC, 1966, one of the first singles bars in the country.

I see now, from up close, that she’s about my age. She’s missing a tooth and there’s a tattoo on her neck and another smaller one beside her left eye. Her face mask is covered in Louis Vuitton insignias. She’s puckering her lips hard. Her eyebrow is cocked. She asks me what I’m writing and I tell her I work at a local college and I’m grading some students’ work. She tells me again that it’s “nice” that I’m doing this.

I nod.

She nods.

There’s a moment.

Then she tosses her head back and says with a knowing smile, “You love em, don’t you.”

A small slur in her voice.

“Love who?”

“The students.”

“Oh,” I say, “not really.”

She widens her eyes as though I’ve just said the most adorable thing and gives me a two-pop chuckle, then grabs my wrist, tells me I’m funny. 

I nod in an energized nervous way. 

One time at a writers’ conference in Connecticut I was at a pub really late with a woman twice my age, and this woman has a son who’s autistic, and as we’re being served by a dude who was about my age, 22 or thereabouts, and she kept looking at him with a small heartfelt smile whenever he stepped away until finally she leaned toward me and whispered, “He’s on the spectrum.” Meaning the autism spectrum.

I said, “How do you know?”

She shrugged. “I just know.”

Which makes sense, obviously, she’s got a kid on the spectrum and knows whereof she speaks. But still–it’s not a conclusion I like to jump to about people. So I parried, asked her to explain why she thought that he was on the spectrum. She didn’t give a solid answer and after a while I was like, “Nah, he’s fine, he’s not on the spectrum.”

A little while later, one of the major workshops let out. Suddenly, a whole buncha writers showed up at this bar. It started getting rowdy. 

Meanwhile we’re getting close to that hour when all Connecticut bars have to close.

Seems like most of these tipsy writers didn’t know anything about it.

I don’t know if it was midnight or 1 a.m. or what–a quick Google search on which I shan’t embark would surely tell you.

So the bartender in question, the one that my friend is telling me is on the autism spectrum, he starts telling people, one-on-one as they buy their drinks, that this is the last one they’re getting, that it’s almost closing time. 

And everybody just nods, “Yeah yeah, cool,” and goes off and chugs it. 

Then they come back for another.

He cracks under the pressure and starts serving cocktails and beers he’d vowed he would not, telling people they have to “drink it quickly though.”

They agree. 

Eventually the clock starts ticking perilously close to that point where he’s supposed to kick everyone out and draw the shutters. He keeps telling people it’s time to go but nobody’s listening, and then eventually, outta nowhere, he explodes. 

The bar in question, New Haven CT.

He looks down at the carpet and shrieks, and the bar goes quiet, and then, still staring at the carpet, he slaps a loud authoritative palm on the bartop and bellows to the room, “The state of Connecticut mandates that all bars close their doors at exactly 1 a.m.” (Maybe it was 12 a.m.)

Anyway. We all paid up and went outside and stood there drunk and chatty and horny, wondering what to do next, when the woman I’d been sitting with grabbed me by the collar and pulled me weirdly close and said, “Told ya.”

Long digression there: it’s all to say that my demeanor with this woman at Batch, talking to me in her slurry flirtatious way, was very similar to that of the overwhelmed bartender in Connecticut who might or might not have been on the spectrum.

So she puts her hand on my wrist, she does her little laugh, I’m doing my curt nods and then quickly averting my eyes back down to the Chromebook. I do, deep down, want this woman to know that I’m not interested, and I’d love for her to please leave me alone–but there’s a part of me that’s also glowing under the attention.

Eventually she goes back to the bar and this time she takes the stool directly next to the man who was sitting on her left and she rests a head on his shoulder.

He trades a puzzled but grateful look with his friend.

The woman orders another shot and coos at the man and makes little jokes with her head still on his shoulder, waiting for the drink, and when it comes she throws it back, then she says something to him, then she stands up and leave.

A couple minutes later, that man stands up and leaves in a hurry. 

Leaving his friend alone.

It becomes clear after a while that she’s a sex worker. I’m friendly with the server and when she comes around and I ask her about the woman in the black dress she bounces her eyebrow and says, “Did you see her tryna pay her check?”

I said, “No, what happened?”

“She bought all these drinks and then pulled some money out of her purse but didn’t have enough, so she went around flirting with everyone on the patio until someone paid for it.” 

After she tells me this I squint at the wall and slowly start processing the woman’s visit through that filter. And it seems incredibly sad. 

I’ve been focusing lately on what seem like the million different kinds of loneliness on display at a bar, on any given night, and naturally I see it more among men than I do among women, sitting at the counter by themselves after work and nursing a lonely bottle as though they’ve just had a long day; pretending to be tired when really they’re sad; but here, with the woman in the black dress, is the portrait of somebody who came in with incredible poise, very mannered and friendly, and got slowly wasted on liquor she couldn’t afford. Drinking with the intention of getting drunk. Shots. Heavy cocktails.

Is it because she was here expecting someone to pick her up? Is she a sex worker? I’ve seen her here before. She comes in alone and then makes friends with people.

I’m wondering if she’s a sex worker, out here trying to make a living, or if maybe she’s just out here trying to get drunk, probably desperate to get drunk, because she’s pounding back drinks she can’t afford and then cozying up to people…

The whole thing would seem cunning and clever but for the detail of pulling too few bills out of her purse, crumbled and strangely folded.

And what of my own gaze here? Am I studying her like a specimen, looking down on her, or am I drawn to the scene because I, too, haven’t been to a bar with someone in a long time? Because I, too, would kinda love to slam some shots and put my head on someone’s shoulder? Because I, too, could–if left to my devices–drink more than I could afford?

The optics are sharply contrasted between the two of us but I can feel, writing this, the phantom touch of her hand on my wrist and I’m imagining the life situation concealed by all of her decorum, the anxieties buried under so much booze, and I’m thinking, with respect to this stranger’s antics, Same here.


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