It's one of those winter nights that makes you think about moving to Florida, telling the Midwest to go screw itself and holing up beside the Gulf for the rest of your life. I'm already thinking of asking Mitch if I can leave early. Technically, if one of us is gonna go home, it should be Joanna. She has the furthest to drive, and has to take Route 16 no less, with its open stretches of dead cornfields and no windbreaks. But Joanna isn't proactive, and she's flirting with Blake, and I'm fairly certain if I approached her with the idea, she'd wave me off. She does that to girls she thinks are prettier than her, and she thinks we're all too stupid to notice.
I haven't seen Mitch in twenty minutes, however, and I'm squinting out the window into the beer garden, trying to see past my reflection, when the man walks in and sits down at the corner booth. Eight-thirty on a night like this, if someone takes a booth, they intend to stay a while. He's my only table; Blake has some customers at the bar, who are mostly finished with their steaks and keep glancing out the windows just like I do. They're regulars; we see them about twice a week.
The man smiles up at me when I walk over. He's cute, maybe ten years older than me. Dressed in what he clearly thinks is casual, meaning no tie. His skin is a couple shades darker than normal, to the point where I can't tell if he's got a good tan, or if it's an ethnic thing. His teeth are white, of course, and his eyes are a murky brown. He knows he's handsome; his smile tells you right away: Hey, I've got the goods. We both know it, so let's move on from there.
Before ordering, he comments on the weather, because that's pretty much a ritual. Then he asks for a rib eye without opening the menu, medium. He asks what sides we have, and when I tell him we have house-made chips, his eyes light up and I write it down without him telling me to. He then asks for a Budweiser, and I note a slight hint of disdain in his voice, though his smile never falters.
I lean against the wait station while Blake gets the bottle. "I watched that dude check in yesterday," Blake said. "You should see his suitcase."
He winks because he knows Joanna is looking. "Show 'em if you got 'em."
I pretend not to notice Joanna's scowl and take the man his beer. I can tell by the look on his face that he appraised me when I walked away; I can also tell I didn't fail to satisfy. This is one of the aspects of working in a bar that some girls never get used to. My sister Violet, for example, used to work here. She got me my job, in fact. But after four months, she couldn't take it. I've been here six now, and I've had enough men stare at me in my life that I don't even notice any longer. At least we work in a classier establishment; we're required to wear pants and short-sleeve shirts and actually have to close most of the buttons on the front. Every now and then, if I'm serving a table of college guys, I'll undo one more button that is technically allowed. Tad's seen me do it and he doesn't like it, but his name is Tad and we aren't really dating anyways, though that's what I tell my mother. She wouldn't understand the real situation. Sometimes I'm not sure that I do, either.
The man introduces himself to me, which lets me know he's going to want to talk later, after a couple of beers perhaps. His name is Oscar, and his clothes are nicer than I first thought. He notices me noticing and says, "I had a presentation today. At the college."
College. It's a university, but businessmen prefer the word "college." It calls to mind Northeastern schools in the fall, with the leaves changing color and students in cardigans walking arm in arm between classes, laughing at a private joke that they would probably share if you asked them. Our school is a university. It has its own police department that sees regular use. The rate of both sexual crimes and STDs has increased in the past five years, coincidentally beginning around the time I started attending. I'm going to graduate in May, and not in the first or second major I chose. Political Science. I don't know what I'm going to do with it. Probably still work in the bar, but I'll be able to lecture people about the Chinese economy if they ever raise the subject.
I don't ask what his presentation is on; he'll tell me eventually. I give my best smile and say I hope it went well. It did, and we part with that. I don't feel his eyes on me when I walk away, but they're there.
It takes me ten minutes to wander around the ground floor of the hotel. Mitch isn't in his office or the main office or the lobby or the bathroom, though a guest is, and he seems embarrassed when I open the door and call out. Mitch isn't in the kitchen, either, and Jessica, a waitress in the restaurant and my only true friend on the staff, hasn't seen him. "He went out to smoke," she tells me, shrugging. "You know how that goes."
"He wouldn't let you leave anyways," Blake tells me when I get back to the bar. "You have a customer."
"The first in, like, an hour."
"'Time is money.'"
I get Oscar another beer. I ask him how long he's staying, and he says he's leaving in the morning. "Even if it doesn't clear up," he says. "I have another presentation back in Phoenix on Friday."
Phoenix. Maybe he's Hispanic or possibly Navajo. I'm not sure why I go with Navajo; the only tribe I associate with Arizona is the one that disappeared, in which case he's obviously not them.
"It's supposed to be pretty bad," I say. "The winters around here get rough."
"Tell me about it." He laughs. "They sent me to Boise in February once. I had to stay a week longer than I'd planned."
"We'll have you back home in less than a week," I say. I wonder if I'm flirting with him. I don't usually flirt with customers, because it can sometimes lead to things like Tad, which is something a sane person should generally avoid. However, there's something about Oscar that makes me think women just naturally flirt with him. I may not be responsible for my own actions, which is a bit of a relief, even though it's slightly unnerving. I have the sense that, if Oscar showed his true charismatic power, he could run for President and have the incumbent's wife vote for him.
I check the kitchen. Oscar's food is almost ready; his steak is sitting under the heat lamp, drying out. I'm not sure what's taking Julio so long, but I use the opportunity to traverse the back rooms of the bar yet again. Still no Mitch, though I can tell he's been in his office since I last checked there.
I take Oscar his food along with another beer. He sniffs at the steak and says, "You can usually judge a town by the quality of beef you get there." Then he stabs it with his fork and daintily cuts out a piece. He chews it thoughtfully and adds, "Very good."
"Special seasoning," I say. "Our chef, Julio—it's his recipe."
Oscar is paying attention to me; usually at this point, the customer zones out. They have what they want; the transaction is now complete, until I bring them the check or they ask for dessert. I'm polite and respectful, and I do try to go above and beyond what is asked of me, but at the end of the day I'm just meeting a need. If it weren’t me in this bar, it'd be some other girl somewhere else.
I start to turn away, but Oscar asks for my name.
"Terryka," I say.
Something shifts on his face, but it's very brief and I don't hold it against him. I'm not fond of my name, either. I'm not sure what my parents were using when they came up with it. It's not a family name, and I've only met one other person in my life who shares it. She wasn't happy, either.
"Well, it's certainly not a Biblical name," Oscar says. "I don't remember a Book of Terryka."
If there had been such a Book, the titular figure would've been a whore who refused to be saved. I don't say this, I just smile and walk away, but I get the feeling that I could've said it, and Oscar would've laughed. Most customers expect professionalism; it's rare that you find one who appreciates a true moment of spontaneity.
Yes. I'm definitely flirting.
Back at the bar, I lean against the counter and pour myself a Coke. "I just saw Mitch," Blake says, but he doesn't tell me where and I don't ask.
"That man's kind of cute," Joanna says, kind of looking at me but really talking to Blake. He just looks up and shrugs. I'm pretty sure he and Joanna have hooked up in one of the rooms before, and Blake isn't the type of guy who goes back for seconds.
"He's from Phoenix," I say, as if this explains everything.
Apparently it does, because Joanna looks at me closely for a moment, then redirects her attention to the hockey game.
"Tad called," Blake tells me, waiting until I've turned my back to him.
"Really," I say, making sure he knows I don't want to talk about it. I can sense him debating how far he can tease me. Some day, Blake and I will probably have a thing; I feel like he might even be up for repeat business with me. I already take it as a compliment, even though I'm not sure I actually want to do it. Flirting with customers is the worst, but flirting with coworkers is almost as bad. That's how I ended up with the one before Tad, whose name I usually have to struggle to remember. Bart. His name was Bart. Terryka and Tad, Terryka and Bart. My parents sealed my fate when they named me.
I lean against the bar and stare at the hockey game, watching Oscar from the corner of my eye. He knows I'm watching, just like I know he's watching me. I don't go over, though, because people don't like to be interrupted when they eat. You learn that on day one. They get impatient if they want something and you don't come to check on them, but they're worse if they have to stop chewing to tell you that no, everything's fine. If we're busy, I'll parade myself through the tables, not making eye contact but making sure glasses are at least half full. I tried to get Joanna to do this, but she just said she's not a piece of meat, even though that's pretty much all she is. She hates that the other girls get better tips than her and has yet to realize it's because we work harder, not because we have better tits. Which we do.
When Oscar leans back from the table, I saunter over and ask how everything was. He gives me a smile, no bits of food in his teeth, no crumbs on his shirt. You can't tell he just ate a steak and a pile of greasy potato chips. Most people look bloated after a meal. He looks exactly the same.
I ask if he wants anything else. He says, "Another beer, and some conversation, if you can spare the time."
He makes a point to look around. Blake and Joanna are the only other two people in the room now.
"Okay," I say, not really thinking about it. I'm curious.
"Then a drink for yourself as well," he says. "Whatever you need."
Need. Not want. A classy way of saying, "Nothing top-shelf." I like it. I ask Blake for another Budweiser and an Amaretto Stone Sour. He grins at me as he makes it.
"That didn't take him long," Joanna says.
I look at her for a moment before realizing I don't really want to say anything.
"Here," Blake says, and sets the drink in front of me. "I'll keep an eye out for Mitch."
He won't. We both know it.
Back at the table, Oscar says, "Were you born here?"
I nod. He asks for an abbreviated version of my life story, not directly but in the way that implies he doesn't want to talk about himself just yet. I haven't talked about myself in a long time; Tad's never asked, and I've never cared to offer. I tell Oscar I ran track in high school and hurt myself playing volleyball. I tell him I learned to hunt when I was seven but that I haven't been in years. I tell him most things I can think of, which isn't much, and he soaks it all in. He's listening, which I'm sure is a solid business tactic. He's genuinely interested, because he has a transaction he wants to conduct. I'm not sure what it is. I don't think it's sex; that seems too crude for him.
"I met a professor at the college who was born here," he tells me. "This man, I won't say his name, he took me aside after my presentation and confessed that he hated working here. I could tell he thought it was some sort of failure, a learned individual never leaving his hometown. He asked me how the colleges were in Phoenix."
"How are they?"
"Absolutely lovely. This man tells me he spent time in Georgia and had thought about going down there to look for work. As if he hadn't just asked me about Arizona. I almost asked him why he wanted to leave. I see no good reason for leaving this town. The college here is very nice; it's not quite on par with what we've got back home, but it's very nice just the same. Do you enjoy it?"
I shrug. "It taught me things. Isn't that the point?"
He grins. I've amused him, and I feel this isn't a small accomplishment.
"Yes, that it is. People go on about socializing and conditioning, but the whole point of a school is to teach. That's it. End of discussion."
"What do you sell?"
"Smart boards," he says, and offers a very brief, beginner-friendly explanation. He knows I won't follow it, but he's obligated to tell me. He gives me just enough to show that he's smart, that his company is smart, and that he makes a lot of money. It takes a special kind of person to sell your product to people who make less than you do. Oscar is that person. He would sell a Bible to a blind atheist by lamenting the futility of religion. He empathizes, and everyone knows it's for profit but they go along with it because there isn't much empathy to go around these days.
When he finishes his explanation, he talks about Phoenix, how the weather is great, how the shopping is plentiful. It's a stalling tactic, giving me time to finish my drink. I like the sound of his voice, however, so I take small sips and bide my time. When I'm finally done, he says, "Would you like to come out to my car for a moment?"
I blink, because it's not what I was expecting. I wasn't sure what to expect, however, so anything he said would've been a surprise.
"Just for a few minutes," he says. "I'll pay my bill first."
He offers me his credit card, and in the length of time it takes to run it, I think over his proposition. When I hand him his receipt to sign, I tell him, "Okay, just give me a moment."
I go back and tell Blake I'm ducking out for a moment. He stares at me. I can tell he never expected it of me.
"It's not like that," I say.
Joanna, too, seems flabbergasted. I wonder what these people think of me. My name is Terryka, I dyed my hair pink for a whole year once, and I'm sleeping with a boy named Tad. Do they really think I'm a prude?
I grab my coat and follow Oscar outside. I'm afraid he's parked on the far side of the parking lot, and I'll have to walk through the snow and darkness to get there, but he's actually just a few spots over from the main entrance. He holds the passenger door open for me. I slip inside. Leather seats, polished dashboard with all the latest trimmings. It's a rental, but upper-end.
He starts the car, and the seat starts to warm up beneath me. The heat feels strange, and I'm not sure I like it at this moment.
Oscar switches on the radio, and soft jazz surrounds us. The music, combined with the heat rising between my legs, takes me back to my second weekend living in the dorms. It wasn't my first time, of course, but it was one of the best. I can't remember the boy's name, but I'm pretty sure it was normal. My last normal boy. We were together for a few weeks, off and on. I'm not sure I've ever had a solid, steady relationship. I think all of my boys have been on-and-off affairs. Tad is probably the most consistent boy I've seen, and I'm pretty sure I despise him.
"Okay," Oscar says. "Just sit there for a while." Then he reaches down, undoes his fly, and pulls out his penis.
I stare for a while, as his slender fingers work back and forth. He closes his eyes as he grows harder, leans his head back against the seat, tilts his face upwards. He isn't particularly well-endowed, but he isn't bad. I can think of things I would do to him, things that Tad keeps asking me to do but I refuse. A lot of it is personality. Even Oscar's penis seems to empathize.
He doesn't look at me. I kind of want him to, if for no other reason than to acknowledge my presence. After all, why am I here? And yet, if he looks at me, I'll leave. This, with his eyes closed, seems more intimate, as though we have done this a thousand times. I know, if I were to be watching this moment through the window, I would have an entirely different perception of these events. Maybe, later, I'll be disappointed with myself. But after a couple of minutes, I realize I'm not even watching Oscar's lap. I'm studying his face. He seems almost joyous, as though he is experiencing some sort of Rapture. His face is completely non-sexual. I'm not sure what this is about for him, but it isn't sex.
When he comes, he angles himself downward, so that his spunk winds up on the floorboards. He gets nothing on his pants. He tucks himself away and finally looks at me.
"Thank you," he says. "I know that's asking a lot. I appreciate it; I really do."
I wonder if I should smile, but it makes no difference because, for some reason, I can't. Instead, I just nod and say, "Okay."
We get out of the car together, but he says goodbye and starts walking towards the rooms. When I go back inside, Mitch is behind the bar, slicing oranges because he has nothing else to do. He looks at me but says nothing, just shakes his head a little. Joanna rolls her eyes, the first time I have ever seen a person actually do that.
Blake says, "Cold out there?"
I can still feel the warmth between my legs. I say, "Not too bad," and sit down and watch the hockey game, waiting for Mitch to send me home. He doesn't, and it isn't until my shift finally ends and I'm given my tips that I realize Oscar left me the bare minimum. Professional to the end. Blake says something, but I'm okay with it. If he'd tipped me extra, I would've been offended. And he knew that. I spend my drive home wondering how much money the university is forking over for his smart boards.
Maybe, instead of Florida, I should try Phoenix. I won't, of course, but maybe I should. I think impossible goals are sometimes the best: that way, you'll never be disappointed if you don’t achieve them.