I had been thinking, earlier, about transience. Not in a metaphysical way, but in relation to love. I’m not talking about short-lived romances or one-night stands. I’m talking about those brief encounters in life when you truly connect with another human. Those moments that burn themselves into your cerebral cortex, and plague you with sleepless nights twenty years after the fact.
Those were the kinds of thoughts running through my head as I got dressed for my first shift at Sadie’s. I wasn’t nervous, because I’d already waitressed in half a dozen bars, and I figured one hole-in-the-wall dive was the same as the next. I scraped my hair back into a ponytail and applied dark eyeshadow to my lids. That old 54-40 song came on the radio, “Baby Ran”. I danced through my tiny apartment and sang along as if the lyrics were running on a screen in front of my eyes.
The thing about that song is it reminds me of the time I heard it live, at an outdoor concert when I was sixteen years old. My friend’s mom drove a big group of us over to the Italian Hall where the band was doing a show in the field behind the building. We wore crop tops and tight jeans, and we maneuvered through beer-chugging college kids. When the music started everyone went wild, dancing and cheering. I stood still, entranced by the lights and the wall of amps, and as people ebbed and flowed around me, I realized I couldn’t see anyone I knew anymore.
Bodies brushed against every part of me, I got bumped and jostled and shoved, but then I felt a finger hook itself around my thumb, and then a whole hand clasped mine softly. I turned my head and a boy, about my age, looked right into my eyes. He didn’t smile, and neither did I, but I didn’t pull my hand back. We listened to a song or two like that, two strangers holding hands like the whole spectacle was there just for us to watch. He circled his arms around my waist and rested his chin on my shoulder. I could feel his breath on my neck, and I leaned into him, pulling him tighter around me.
The show ended after “Baby Ran”, and the band disappeared in a fog of smoke. The boy let go of me, and by the time I stopped clapping for an encore, he’d blended into the sea of bodies, and I never saw him again. I lay in bed that night, staring at the ceiling rapt inside heady reverie; I could still feel him holding me like a phantom limbed paramour.
Memory is a strange thing, the way it lives in the cells of the body. I turned off the radio to expel its ghosts and heated a frozen mini pizza in the microwave. I lived off cheap meals, things like macaroni and cheese or cans of off-brand soup. Sometimes I missed eating real food, but there was no way I could ever move back home. I put my plate in the sink with all the others and thought about doing the dishes. My mother would be mortified if she could see the state of my kitchen, but unless she was looking down on me from heaven, she couldn’t. I dug through my purse to scrounge up enough change for the bus and headed to the corner.
St. Carmen’s is technically a city, but as cities go, it’s small and backwards. This part of the province is made up of a dot-to-dot string of small towns connected by regional roads. The modest population stretches over dirty streets filled with strip malls and car lots, crawling with small-time drug dealers and wandering homeless kids bound for bigger places.
Sadie’s was underground, literally. You had to go downstairs into the basement of a cigar shop on the corner of Maine and West, the stairwell plastered with handmade flyers for punk bands and art shows. The boss, Dinah, had hired me the day before outside on the sidewalk. I was on my way home from my boyfriend Tommy’s place after an awful shouting match. I saw her leaning against the wall outside the shop taking a long drag from a cigarette, and I asked her if I could bum one. “You’re a pretty girl,” she said, “You lookin’ for work?” I took in her tall form, her green cat eyes painted with thick black liner. She looked powerful, like a businesswoman but instead of a blazer and a skirt with heels, she wore fishnet stockings and Doc Martens, with jean shorts and a tank top that showed off her tattoos.
On the bus I sat in the back seat, awkwardly trying to avert my eyes from a couple of rave girls making out with each other like nobody else existed in the world. The one with the Hello Kitty backpack opened her eyes as the blonde one in the velvet tracksuit groped her thigh. She looked right at me and stuck out her tongue to trace it along the other girl’s throat. I rolled my eyes and crossed my legs, pretending to be interested in the ad for teeth whitening plastered above them.
I arrived at Sadie’s five minutes late, heart pounding in my chest. Contrary to my dad’s low opinion of me I was an overachiever, and the thought of getting fired for tardiness on the first night appalled me. Luckily, the place was dead, and Dinah wasn’t even there yet, so nobody noticed. The bar ran along the left side of the room, a low stage sat about twenty feet across from the entry, and a corridor leading to the bathrooms branched off to the right.
“Hello?” I called, throwing my bag down on a table. “Anybody here?” Nobody answered, so I walked behind the bar where a door led to the kitchen and tried again. “Hello?”
A short guy with pink hair and a greasy apron appeared from around a corner. “Hey, you must be Eileen. Dinah said you were coming.” We shook hands and he told me his name. “It’s James,” he said, “but everyone calls me Winger. Because I cook chicken wings.”
He gave me one of those black half aprons with the pockets and told me I wouldn’t need a notebook because the only thing on the menu was chicken wings or French fries. He showed me around the back, the closet with the cleaning supplies, Dinah’s office, and the walk-in cooler where they kept the beer. “Sometimes they need us to grab cases and bring them to the bar if it’s really busy, but Will usually takes care of that. He’s the bartender most nights, and he likes to do things himself.” As long as I could carry food on a tray and deliver pitchers of beer, Winger said, I’d do all right.
“Why is this place called Sadie’s?” I asked him, curious.
“It’s interesting. Dinah’s dad used to run things, and he inherited it from his uncle. The uncle bought it back in the fifties when it was a strip club, because he fell in love with a beautiful jazz singer. He wanted her to have a place to do her act. And of course, her name was Sadie.”
“Cool,” I murmured. The rooms did have a certain historic charm in their details, the arched doorframes and the coving in the ceiling. The place looked like something out of an old mobster movie.
“What the fuck Winger, there are people out there for Christ’s sake.” Dinah stormed in waving her arms, “Eileen, honey, get out there and see if they want anything. We need to bring in some cash tonight. Where the hell is Will?”
I hustled out to the bar where five or six rockabilly guys were slamming their fists down chanting for beer. They started hooting about fresh meat and whistling when they saw me, and the familiar shame of pleasure ran down my spine. Assholes. I told them to shut the fuck up and tell me what they wanted to drink. By the time I handed them their bottles of Molson and Bud, music blasted from the speakers suspended from the four corners of the ceiling. Dinah played an eclectic mix, things like The Damned or Siouxsie and the Banshees. The Smiths, The Clash. Over the years Sadie’s had become a haven for freaks; within the hour it was filled with barely legal alt kids and middle-aged punk rockers. Goth girls flicked through the crowd like wraiths, and just when Dinah was about to flip her lid, Will showed up.
He moved behind the bar with the grace of a dancer. Slender arms pouring drafts, hipbones jutting through the bottom edge of a threadbare Minor Threat T-shirt. He wore low-slung ripped-up Levi’s cuffed to reveal tightly laced combat boots. Long brown hair hung just above his shoulders, and black ink snaked up from his spine to wrap around his neck. He was painfully thin, with features so finely sculpted they were almost delicate. He nodded in my direction, and I shouted an order to be heard over the music. When he handed me the drinks he grinned, and I caught a glimpse of metal inside his mouth. I must have stared a moment too long at his lips, because he flashed his pierced tongue at me before turning back to make mixed drinks for a couple of girls with rainbow mohawks.
Tommy was supposed to pick me up that night. I figured I’d be done by midnight, so I told him to come down and check the place out, maybe have a drink and meet my new boss. He never showed. I sat on a high stool at the bar sulking and exhausted. I didn’t want to take the bus back this late, but I didn’t know who I could ask for a ride. God damn Tommy. He let me down so many times I couldn’t even remember why I liked him. Every time I tried to break up with him, he would fill my head with all kinds of sweet sentiments and kiss me until I couldn’t think straight.
We met at a bonfire in senior year. A friend of mine had driven us two counties over to some old farmhouse where her cousin’s buddy was throwing a party. Tommy sat beside me and roasted me a marshmallow. We lay down on our backs and looked at the stars while everyone around us smoked weed, and he was dropping these lines on me that were so cliché I mistook them for a kind of intelligent parody. Thought he was being clever. Thought, naively, that I was special.
Eyes glued to the clock over the bar, I waited for him for an hour. I silently compared my mental image of Tommy to the physical presence of Will in front of me, and a welcome confusion swept through my limbs. People still milled around, but the kitchen was closed, and Winger came and sat beside me. Dinah was talking to some guys at a table, and Winger said they were in a band called “Fug” and that they usually played on Saturdays. “Tomorrow night,” he told me, “This place will be packed to the gills.” I nodded and made small talk, asking some questions about Fug. I don’t remember what Winger answered because I couldn’t take my eyes off Will. He never stopped moving, wiping down the glasses, polishing the bar top, darting back and forth from the kitchen to the customers, with an elegance incongruous with the way he styled himself. He was like a dragonfly trying to come off as a scorpion.
I watched as Dinah strode behind the bar, her long legs clad in leopard print tights. She slunk behind Will, her palms grazing his waist before she reached for a mug and poured a pint. He whispered something in her ear, his lean body fitting into her space without actually touching her, and she threw back her head and laughed. He caught me staring at him again, but this time he didn’t smile or stick his tongue out. He stared right back at me, and it was like a world opened up between us.
Winger stood up and hiked his backpack over his shoulders. “I’m gonna hit the road,” he said. “You good? Do you need a lift somewhere?”
I grimaced and told him my shit-for-brains boyfriend stood me up. Told him where I lived. “Come on,” he said, “I can drop you off, it’s on the way.”
Tommy didn’t call me until three o’clock the next afternoon, excuses pouring like rain through the phone line. “Babe, the engine wouldn’t start. I promise I’ll be there tonight, okay? You can still count on me, it’s not like I did it on purpose.”
“Just be there,” I told him, and hung up the phone. I don’t know why I wanted him to come, he would only mock the band and the bar. I think it was more about validation, I needed to know that if I asked him to come, he would, to know that I still held some kind of sway over him. It was twisted, the way I felt about him, it was like I was drowning, constantly lashing my arms to swim to the surface for air, thinking that if I could catch that breath then I would win somehow.
That night when Fug went on, Sadie’s was at maximum capacity. The place could only hold about two hundred people, but it felt like ten times that many when I waded through the tight throng with pitchers and drinks. Two other waitresses were on shift. Anna, with a beehive hairdo and a vintage polka dot dress straight out of the 1950s, and Jess, a skateboarder in baggy cords, a NOFX T-shirt and Vans. The band was loud, and they played all original songs that involved a lot of interactive shouting between the singer and the audience. Everyone knew the words to the songs, beer was getting sprayed, and someone passed a joint around to the people in the front.
“They can’t do that, can they?” I asked Dinah. She raised an eyebrow and smirked, and I felt stupid.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “If the cops show up, I’ll deal with them.” She told me to stop bringing drinks into the crowd. “Let them come to Will so you don’t get trampled. Just have a seat and chill out for a bit.”
Watching Will work was like being front row in a theater. He’d bend down to get lime wedges out of the little fridge under the bar, his back curving so that his ribcage showed through his shirt. He flirted with the girls, making jokes and winking at them. They’d ask him for hugs, and he’d walk around to meet them with open arms, calling them things like my lovely and my bella. I wanted him to talk like that to me, but he never did. Instead, he’d grow serious when I caught his attention, his cornflower blue eyes shining like silk, wells of reflection.
As I sat there, my mind encompassed by Will, a group of three girls came in. They weren’t the usual Sadie’s type, dressed in blouses tucked into their jeans, feet clad in desert boots and Keds. The tallest one with strawberry blond hair came straight for me and asked me who the fuck I thought I was.
“Excuse me?” I asked, standing up, annoyed at the affrontery.
“You heard me,” she insisted. “I wanna know why you think you can sleep with other people’s boyfriends.” I saw Will approach out of the corner of my eye while my mind raced through possible explanations for this girl’s anger. Heads were turning, Anna and Jess came and stood beside me.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I’m talking about Tommy, you fucking whore. I’ve been going out with him for five years.”
This information hit me like a slap in the face. All the gaps in time, all those nights he was late or forgot about me entirely. I couldn’t breathe, let alone speak, but I knew with my whole being that she was telling me the truth. Will stepped closer, tossing his polishing rag down as though ready to defend me, but the girl started to cry. “You didn’t know, did you?” she said, and I shook my head. She threw her arms around me and held me tight, shaking. Will looked at me then, like he understood everything, and then he nodded his head in the direction of the door. Tommy stood there, an idiotic expression on his face, staring at us like a kid with his hand in the cookie jar.
Tommy headed straight to the blonde and her two sidekicks. Will leaned over the bar and rested two fingers on my forearm. “You can do better,” he said, before turning to take a customer’s order. The blonde was shouting accusations and Tommy was begging and pleading. I slipped into the kitchen and splashed cold water on my face, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was complicit. That I should have known because it was so goddamned obvious.
After that, I asked Dinah for more hours. I couldn’t stand the thought of sitting in my apartment with no plans. Tommy and the preppy blonde patched things up. Honestly, I felt happy for her; she got what she wanted, and I knew he was no good for me anyway. Good riddance. I wanted to make money, to put my head down and focus on saving up. Dinah let me come in early to clean the bathrooms or help prep in the kitchen. I started hanging out at Sadie’s almost every single day.
Winger and I talked a lot, he was a high school dropout and possibly a genius. His pink hair faded, and he changed it to purple. He told me about how he ran away from home because his religious parents didn’t approve of his lifestyle, or his boyfriend Juan. One morning, as I mopped the sticky floor in front of the stage while he and Will filled the ice buckets and chopped the lemons, Winger asked me about my family.
“I don’t see them very often,” I told him. “Some weird shit went down that I couldn’t wrap my head around. Not to mention my dad treated me like the black sheep of the family because all I ever wanted to do was sing. So I left. I’ve been moving around a lot since then.” Will sat down at the bar and took a swig of black coffee, listening.
“You sing?” he asked me. It was only the second time he’d spoken directly to me, not that I was counting.
“I do.” I answered. “What about you? I asked, “What’s your story?”
“No story,” he said. He picked up his coffee and headed to Dinah’s office.
I looked at Winger and he shrugged. “He’s a doll, but he’s pretty fucked up.” I learned then that Will was an orphan, who grew up in foster care. “Dinah found him on the street when he was like sixteen or something, and took him in. He lives with her,” Winger said, his phrasing heavy with insinuation. “Their place is right upstairs, on top of the cigar shop.”
I processed this new version of Will as I pulled the chairs down off the tables and wiped everything down. Will had to be close to my age. He couldn’t be more than twenty or twenty-one. Dinah was old, like thirty-five or something. Could they actually be a couple? I thought about the way she acted like he was her own private piece of candy, and my stomach dropped. Winger continued his gossiping.
“People say she does things to him. Like ties him up and puts him in a cage. I even heard she doesn’t pay him to work here, that he does it for room and board.”
“Okay, but that can’t be true. Or, at least, it must be exaggerated,” I said. I felt guilty talking about Will like this, he was becoming this thing in my mind, something precious and rare. Whenever he looked at me, I felt that he could see right through me, or into me.
“Maybe,” Winger said, “but there is definitely something weird between them.”
I got home that night to the red light of the answering machine flashing. My older brother Andrew’s thin voice, tight and clipped. “Aunt Jo is dying. Soon. Eileen, you should come home.” I listened to it three times in disbelief, melting into the futon. Aunt Jo was only in her forties. If she’d been sick, I hadn’t known about it. Typical of Andy to refrain from providing details. This way I’d have to call him back. “God damn it,” I muttered, punching in the familiar number. He answered after the first ring.
“Eileen, thank god.”
“What the hell is happening?” I asked, in a curt tone.
“It’s cancer,” he said. “In her brain, the same as Mom.” I shut my eyes tight and covered my mouth with my hands. My brother was legendary for his lack of tact. When he told you something it felt like you got hit in the face with a baseball bat. I couldn’t speak.
“Leeny, just come home. Dad’s a wreck.” He told me about my cousins, Danny and Brian, breaking down in tears, sobbing in front of him the night before. He told me Aunt Jo was brave and strong, worrying about everyone else instead of herself. Like our mother had.
“Work is really busy,” I mumbled, unsure if I was being truthful or avoiding reality. It wasn’t a total lie, the coming weekend was a big deal at Sadie’s, we were throwing a music festival. But was that more important than spending time with my aunt before she passed away?
“How much time does she have, truly?”
“A couple of weeks at best.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” I hung up the phone and sank down onto the floor. I stayed there for a long time. I pictured my mother lying in bed, her head propped up on white pillows. The smell of lavender filled the air, her favorite scent, and Andy and I sat on each side of her holding her hands. I flipped through magazines, telling her all the latest celebrity gossip. She loved to hear about who was dating who, who was up for what award. Once, when my brother was out of the room, she squeezed my hand and told me I had a beautiful voice.
“Don’t let your father tell you how to live your life. If you want to sing, then sing.”
I hated to think of Danny and Brian going through the same thing Andy and I had, losing their mom so young. I knew all too well that once she was gone, they would flounder, as though the very ground they stood on was being pulled out from underneath them.
The music festival was Dinah’s idea. It was a fundraiser for the bar; Dinah said they needed to reconfigure the whole place so they could have bigger shows, knock out walls, redo the bathrooms. Anna and I were selling tickets for ten bucks each at a table by the door. We made a poster that said, “Save Sadie’s.” People were buying tickets like hotcakes, and every local musician for miles around showed up begging for a spot to perform. Dinah strode back and forth all day with a cigarette perpetually dangling from the corner of her lips, scratching notes on a clipboard and shouting orders. We were busy and pulling in a ton of cash. I felt for the first time in ages like I was part of something bigger than myself, something amazing.
On Friday before work I took the bus early so that I could grab a coffee and enjoy the summer weather. There was a beautiful park a block over from the bar full of wrought iron benches and pathways. A fountain sat surrounded by blooming flowers, and a wide path led to a large gazebo. The call from my brother weighed heavy on my mind, and I needed time to think. I’d have to go to the funeral at the very least, but that meant seeing everyone after such a long time, and that in turn meant I’d have to navigate through a maze of anxiety, of emotions I’d attempted to bury right along with my mother.
I found an unoccupied bench where I could see kids throwing pennies into the fountain. The sun shone brightly, blinding me from certain angles. I placed my hand against my forehead to shield my eyes, and that’s when I saw Will approaching. We exchanged pleasantries and he asked if he could sit down.
“Of course,” I said, shifting to make room for him.
“I’m sorry if I’ve been coming off a bit cold to you. You start a job at Sadie’s, and you come into a weird situation.”
“Oh no, I didn’t think that at all. I just thought you didn’t like me much.”
He laughed and hung his head in mock shame. “I like you fine. But how do you like us? I mean working for Dinah and everything?”
“She’s great, she’s been super nice to me.” I didn’t want to ask about him and Dinah, but I did want to know, so I smiled and lifted my head up inquisitively.
“Yeah, I get it, you want to know what the deal is with me and her.” He laughed and ran his hands over his head, smoothing his hair back with slender fingers. “Look, she took me in when I was homeless. I’ve lived at her place for a couple of years and worked for her the whole time. It’s all right, but it’s complicated.”
“Wow.” I didn’t want to break the spell with a stupid comment, wanted him to keep talking to me.
“I know what people say about us, but it’s not like that. I have a lot of gratitude for her because she’s really tried to give me a place to call home.”
“But I feel trapped. All the time. She gets upset if I talk about going to school or finding a better job. And she gets jealous if I try to date anyone. It’s fucked up.”
I remained silent, absorbing the intensity of him in that moment. His knees poked through the rips in his jeans, his elbows sharp. He was all angles and points, collarbone, chin. He looked at me with genuine fear in his eyes. “Please don’t repeat any of this. I mean, I feel like I can trust you for some reason, so I know you won’t.”
I made the motion as if I were zipping my lips.
“Do you ever think,” he began, “about disappearing? I’m talking about getting on a plane and leaving the country. Never to be seen again.” I studied his posture, the way he slouched and drew his knees toward his chest, like he was folding in on himself.
“I guess so,” I mused. “It would be sort of romantic in theory. But I don’t think I’d have the guts in real life.” I thought about my Aunt Jo, lying in a casket while my cousins cried over her body. “And I couldn’t abandon my family completely like that.”
“Ah, but see? I’ve got no one. Well, besides Dinah, and I’m sure she’d get over it eventually.”
His eyes glazed over as he stared up at a purple kite flying near the gazebo. A mom and her young son held the string tightly as it dipped and bobbed in the sky. “I think about saving up enough money and going to the airport. I’d look up at the destinations on the board and pick one. I wouldn’t even care where I went. Could be South America, or Europe. Thailand. Australia. And then I’d just fly away and figure out what to do next.”
I supposed that in my own way I was doing the exact same thing. Running away, always running away.
“I haven’t spoken to my family in over two years,” I said. “My mom got sick, and about a month before she died my dad decided to admit that he had an affair years earlier.”
“Shit,” Will muttered, pulling his legs up tighter to circle them in his arms. He leaned his chin on his knees and looked at me.
“I can’t get over it. Cheating on her was bad enough, but then he had to tell her about it? I mean, he said he couldn’t live with the guilt, that he needed her forgiveness. But it’s so goddamn selfish. He should’ve let her go in peace.”
“So what did you do?” Will asked, and I realized I hadn’t talked about this with anyone, not even Tommy.
“I left. I didn’t tell anyone, not my dad, not my brother. Just packed up a few things and stayed at a friend’s place for a few days while I looked around for an apartment. Been on my own ever since.”
“I don’t know what it’s like to have a family,” Will said slowly, “but it seems to me that if you’ve got one, you should do whatever it takes to keep it together.”
As much as I hated to admit it, he was right, and I nodded in agreement. I pointed a finger and traced it over some Celtic markings inked onto his forearm. “What about all this?” I wanted to know how someone so young managed to cover their entire body with tattoos. Dinah had told me that when she found him at sixteen, he was already fully sleeved with work started on an elaborate back piece.
He laughed. “Before I lived with Dinah, I was a bit of a street rat. I used to hang around the tattoo shop downtown and they took pity on me. Let me mop the floor and clean the bathrooms for free ink. I’m an orphan so there was no parental consent required.” He ran his hands over the dark patterns etched into his skin. “I guess it’s like a suit of armor.”
He smiled widely and squinted as the sun shone into his eyes, and I felt a wave of something like butterflies rising through my body. Though I would have liked to remain there watching him at such close range, I shook my head to dispel my nervous energy. “We better get to work. Dinah will kill us if we’re late.”
The lineup to get into Sadie’s caught us by surprise. We cut through familiar faces and made our way down the stairs. At one point Will turned back to take my hand and pull me through a group of tightly knit patrons. I could feel the roughened tips of his fingers against my palm for one brief second. We emerged through the arch into a frenzy of activity. “There you are,” Dinah scowled, grabbing Will and pulling him behind the bar. “Eileen,” she said, make sure the bathroom’s clean, I think someone threw up in there.”
The festival attracted all kinds of people, every type of artist and musician. I barely took time to soak it all in, distracted by the demands of keeping up with the drink orders. Friday night ended in the blink of an eye, and Saturday passed in much the same manner. Fug headlined that night, and when they got to their encore, I finally took a seat at the bar and paid attention.
The singer danced wildly, and the air seemed to thicken with distortion; I could feel it in my chest. I wished I could get a band together like that, find people to create something unique with. Before I moved to St. Carmen’s I used to sing quiet folk songs at a few different pubs that held open mic nights. It had been a while though, and when I thought about going on stage at Sadie’s, something held me back, a self-imposed mental block.
The show ended and Dinah held court like an exalted queen, everyone wanted to talk to her, either to thank her or shower her with adoration. She had more fans than the bands did; she was like some kind of local hero. She gestured to Will to join her, put her arm around him. He behaved so graciously, shaking hands and saying all the right things. Dinah acted as though the whole festival was a joint venture between the two of them, like they were a team. Will caught me watching him, but I didn’t look away. I couldn’t.
I dreamed of Aunt Jo that night, standing in the middle of a shopping mall. Her arms were filled with bags, and she lifted a hand to wave to me. I ran to her, but her face started caving in, shrinking until the skin disintegrated. I clung to her, crying out and she said, “your mother is so sad.” Shoppers were crowding around us and when I tried to escape, I thought I saw Will far off in the distance. I woke up sweating with a scream caught in my throat.
As I got ready to go to work, I thought about my mother, about what Aunt Jo said in the dream. I couldn’t shake the impression of truth the message carried. I knew I had no right to judge my father. Things got so convoluted, so complicated. Look at what happened with Tommy and me. When I was a kid, I thought my parents were perfect, that they always knew what to do. Now I was beginning to understand that being human makes choosing between right and wrong difficult, as if life is a wavering path full of potholes and shadows. That growing up doesn’t mean you have all the answers. I tried to empathize with him, but then I would remember how he betrayed my mother, and my stomach would turn to lead.
I pulled on a pair of lace stockings over purple tights. Threw on a black babydoll dress and smoothed my hair down, parting it carefully in the middle. I felt a need to take extra care with my appearance that day, I wanted Will to notice me. Seeing him with Dinah the night before filled me with an envy so deep I wanted to punch something, and I decided it was time to consider doing something about it.
The bar was about half-full when I got there, and two girls sung harmonies while a third one played a tune on the old upright piano. It was only four o’clock, so people weren’t ready to start hard drinking quite yet. Dinah collected us all in the kitchen for a pep talk.
“Okay guys,” she said, “this is it, the final night of the festival. We’ve been killing it so far, so let’s keep the energy going and rake in the cash.” Anna would do the door, Jess and I would waitress. Winger laughed and said he had never cooked so many chicken wings in one weekend. Will stood solemnly with his hands clasped behind his back, head lowered, staring at my boots. Everyone set off to their posts, but I lingered, hoping to catch his eye. “Hey,” I said, “how’s it going?” He flashed a wide smile and winked.
“Going great,” he said. “Love the dress.”
I floated through the room taking orders, barely able to concentrate. Every time I asked Will for a drink or a pitcher of beer, I felt like my heart would fly out through my mouth. A reggae band went on and several girls were dancing. One of the regulars, an old rocker in leather pants who was clearly on drugs, spun in circles among the girls. By seven I was worn out and took a break to drink a glass of water.
I leaned against the bar and watched as Dinah took the mic in her hands. “We have a surprise for you up next,” she said, “one of our very own is coming up to do a song.” A few people clapped and the old guy in leather let out a low whistle. “Eileen, come on up here.”
I didn’t react immediately, assuming she meant some other Eileen. Faces turned back to look at me, and when I realized she was talking about me blood rushed to my head. I glanced over to Will who stood with his arms crossed, smiling at me. He hooked his thumb toward the stage, and I understood that this was his doing. I opened my mouth to say something, but by then Anna was pushing me forward.
I stepped up and Dinah patted me on the back. “Good luck,” she whispered, and left me there alone, the spotlight creating a circle of light at my feet.
I picked up an acoustic guitar that leaned against an amp. “All right if I use this?” I asked, and the guy with dreadlocks from the reggae band gave me two thumbs up. I looped the strap over my head and got myself adjusted and strummed a chord. My mind raced through the songs I knew well enough to pull off, and I felt a moment of weightlessness. I hoped I wasn’t too rusty. I looked out over faces obscured in shadow, scanning over the tops of their heads until I saw Will. It hit me then which song I should play and who I was playing it for. “I’m gonna mellow things out a bit,” I said. “How about The Velvet Underground,” I asked, “you guys like them?”
A few more random cheers echoed, and I started in on “Pale Blue Eyes,” the opening riff being one I knew inside and out. I used to practice it in my bedroom a hundred times a night. A few couples started waltzing and twirling around dramatically, like players in a pantomime. The rockabilly guys held up their lighters, and the flames sparked in the haze of smoke and light. I inhaled a breath and started singing.
Will moved closer until he was standing right in the center of the dance floor. I felt naked, completely exposed as he watched me. I tried to focus on the guitar, but my gaze went back to him again and again. I strummed gently and sang the lyrics, lost inside the pools of his eyes as if no one else was in the room.
The song ended and the next act came up. They all shook my hand and the singer asked me if I wanted to do a song with them. “I’d love to,” I answered. The room buzzed with voices and laugher, and I felt high. I did three or four songs with them but as time went by, I couldn’t see Will anymore. I thanked the guys for letting me join in and stepped down from the stage. I squeezed through groups of people, stretching on tiptoes, craning my neck to search for any trace of him. A kind of panic took hold of me, faces melted together, and the normal noise of the bar escalated to a pulsing throb in my ears.
I made it to the washroom where I clenched the sides of the sink. My reflection glared back at me, pallid, frazzled. “Get a grip,” I told myself, and smoothed my hair back into place. I took long, deep breaths and when my heart rate slowed, I pinched my cheeks in an attempt to gain back some color. I didn’t understand why this was happening. Maybe it was all this stuff with Aunt Jo, but talking with Will in the park had really helped me sort out my priorities. I needed to talk to him again. Desperately.
The corridor outside the washrooms was dark, shadows flickering, flashes of light cast through the doorway from the stage. The air vibrated with bass notes and the buzz of feedback. The rockabilly guys were on, doing a punk version of an old Elvis song. I leaned against the wall and closed my eyes. When I opened them, Will was there, and walking towards me. He came close, placed his hands on each side of my face, thumbs tracing my bottom lip. He kissed me, and I remember thinking he smelled like cigarettes and cologne and soap and fresh air. I pulled him to me when the kiss ended, unwilling to separate from him, and he touched his forehead to mine. “If I asked you to run away with me,” he said, his voice low, “Would you?”
“I can’t,” I answered, and kissed him again. The sound of voices approaching broke the moment, and as a group of girls bounced past, Will vanished.
I stood there as though in a trance, unable to think. I wanted him to come back, wanted him to explain himself. Wanted him. after a while Dinah came rushing down the hall. “Eileen! You were awesome up there, but I need your help at the bar, Will is nowhere to be seen. Fucking asshole.”
I followed her to the walk-in cooler where we grabbed a case of beer each to lug back to the bar. She ranted the entire time. “What the hell would possess him to disappear like this on the busiest goddamn night we’ve ever had?”
I couldn’t answer her, so I hustled around filling pitchers and handing out bottles. Collecting cash and wiping up spills. I became increasingly uneasy as the evening wore on with no sign of Will. I kept replaying the scene in the hallway over in my mind, his lips, his hands. I wanted to laugh or scream or jump up and down, but instead I worked like a dog until closing.
Dinah started doing shots around midnight, and once the last stragglers left, she settled into a bottle of whisky. We all hovered like satellites around her, Anna, Jess, Winger and I. She was still complaining about Will. Jess mentioned that she heard him say he had a headache.
“Maybe he just went home sick.” I suggested. Dinah turned to me; eyes narrowed. She wagged a finger and leaned closer. “Don’t think I don’t know what’s going on with you two. I see the way he looks at you, like you’re the fucking Virgin Mary or some shit.”
My throat constricted. Winger shook his head almost imperceptibly, a signal to remain silent. He interjected with exclamations of how fantastic the night had been, how talented the musicians were, how amazing Sadie’s would become after the renovations. Dinah rolled her eyes and skulked lower and lower in her seat.
“You know what really pisses me off?” she asked us, almost falling off her stool. Anna lurched forward to save her, propping her back into a comfortable position. “I fucking gave that boy a home. Got him off the streets. And he never fucking looked at me like that. I think he hates me.” She started to cry.
“All right, I think that’s enough.” Winger said. “Let’s get you up to your apartment, girl. I bet Will’s up there right now, sleeping off his headache. Nothing to worry about at all, okay?” He guided her out the door with Anna and Jess’s help. I tagged along behind them, feeling utterly useless.
After he got Dinah settled, Winger drove us all home. He dropped me off last. “It’s true,” he said, “what Dinah said. Will does look at you like he’s in love with you or something.” A sigh escaped me, but my feelings on the subject of Will were inexpressible.
“Good night, Winger, thanks for the lift.”
The next day I slept in, lying in bed an hour longer than usual. I felt certain that Will wouldn’t be at Sadie’s when I got there, but I wanted to avoid confronting the fact that he might be gone for good. A raw ache filled my chest, like I knew it was over before it began. It seemed impossible I could fall in love so fast. But that kiss. That kiss felt like the truest expression of desire I’ve ever known.
I arrived at Sadie’s around four o’clock. I trudged down the stairs slowly, filled with a kind of dread. As soon as I came through the arch Dinah stopped pacing and turned to me. “You,” she said. Winger stood up. “Dinah, lay off, she had nothing to do with it.”
“With what?” I asked, puzzled as to what I was being accused of.
“We’re two thousand dollars short. Two thousand fucking dollars is missing from the goddamn till. I counted it last night, and now it’s not there. Did he mention anything to you about leaving?”
“No,” I lied.
The room erupted in voices arguing, Anna, Jess and Dinah each yelling louder than the next to make themselves heard. Anna and Jess were sure that Will took the money and ran, but Dinah didn’t want to believe it.
“He wouldn’t do that to me,” she kept repeating over and over. Winger tried to calm her down, but it was pointless.
Jess grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her. “You didn’t pay him, did you? You let him work here for years for room and board. You think that’s fair? You think that’s right?”
Dinah started sobbing. “I gave him whatever he needed; I took care of him.”
“You treated him like a goddamned exotic pet is what you did! You should be thankful he only took two thousand, I would’ve taken everything you have.” She grabbed her bag and headed towards the exit. “I quit,” she said, and took off up the stairs.
Anna apologized, though she’d done nothing wrong. “Dinah, I’m sorry. I’ll help until you find some new people, but I don’t think I can work here anymore either.”
I closed my eyes, and a sense of certainty came over me. I pictured Will in an airplane, gazing out at a blue sky filled with gauzy white clouds. He could be headed anywhere in the world, France maybe. Or Spain. He would land in a strange city, call for a taxi and ride to a hotel. He would lean out of a balcony, smoking a cigarette and watching the people on the sidewalk below speaking in some unknown language. I would never see him again. The memory of his face would fade, and my love would be a little less pure. The kiss would haunt me for years to come.
I cleared my throat and Dinah looked at me, her face a sheet of skepticism.
“I want to stay.”
“What?” she asked, incredulous.
“If you’ll have me, I want to keep working here. But I need to take off for a few days, there’s something I need to take care of.”
“Yeah,” she stammered, “do what you have to do, we’ll be here.”
Winger gave me a hug. “Everything will be okay,” he told me, but I wasn’t so sure.
Outside, the afternoon sun baked the streets with summer heat. The bus stopped at the corner and the rave girls hopped down to the sidewalk, giggling and whispering. A guy with long grey hair and a beard gathered into an elastic walked by eating a piece of pizza.
I crowded myself into the phone booth outside the cigar shop, stared hard at the shiny black receiver. I imagined Will sitting in some café on the other side of the world, sipping black coffee while people stared at him and wondered where he came from. I knew then that the kiss was his way of saying good-bye to me, his way of telling me that if things were different, we could have been together. That perhaps, in another life, we could have loved each other. I slid a quarter into the slot and punched in my old number.
“Andy,” I said, “Tell Dad, I’m on my way.”
Sara Dobbie is a Canadian writer from Southern Ontario. Her stories have appeared in New World Writing Quarterly, Bending Genres, Ghost Parachute, Ruminate, trampset, Ellipsis Zine, and elsewhere. Her debut collection Flight Instinct is forthcoming from ELJ Editions (2022). Follow her on Twitter (@sbdobbie) and on Instagram (@sbdobwrites).