She takes a sip, a drag.
Blowing out smoke, she remembers to listen for her cue.
She glances sideways. Burly guy in a gray suit at the end of the bar.
“Let me buy you a drink.”
She raises her glass, shows it is full. “I know,” he says. “The next one.”
She shrugs, sips. Guy’s already edging along the bar, loosening his tie. He plops down in the seat next to her. She doesn’t bother putting out the cigarette.
He signals to the bartender, then says, “I like your nose stud.”
This isn’t acting so it’s a nice touch. She genuinely can’t hear him. Only a few scattered sad sacks and it’s early still but the place is noisy.
“The stud. In your nose.” He points. “I like it.”
“Oh. Thanks.” She looks away, blows out smoke. The way she says this, the punctuation of smoke—not uninterested, just disinterested. She doesn’t have to say much and that’s the way she prefers it. “Always thought those were cool. Tattoos too.” An excuse to eye her up and down. Stare. “You should get one.”
The guy laughs loudly.
“What?” she says. “You should.”
“Ah. Maybe you could convince me.”
“The night is young.”
Guy laughs again. Then he’s glancing around, pretending not to stare. They’re always bad at this.
“First time here,” he says. “How ‘bout you?”
Sipping, she says, “Couple times.”
He nods, taps unrhythmically on the bar. She tries not to wince.
“And they allow smoking, huh. Like, not vaping. Actual cigarettes."
She doesn’t say anything.
After a beat he says, “Place seems all right. Pretty new, right?”
She shrugs, sets the drink down.
Guy turns to eyeing the bartender who continues to ignore him. He loosens his collar some more, showing way too much chest hair. “Pass by on my way to work,” he says. “Always meant to stop in.”
“Look at you,” she says. “Living your dreams.”
The guy laughs way too loud again. Says, “You work around here?”
She says this with an air of indifference that will be mistaken for mystery. A tone she’s honed in the mirror, practiced on other nights exactly like this. The same scene over and over. A never-ending play of depravity, pathetic loneliness. Sweating stinking humanity.
Tonight it’s especially easy to pull off.
Guy’s a bore. Even for this dingy hole. Not that she’s surprised. Anyway, the scene’s going especially well. He’s playing his part perfectly, hitting all his marks, and he doesn’t even know it. If she does her job right, he never will.
She rolls her eyes to the ceiling, waits for the next line, which is “So, where do you work?” but the guy throws a curveball.
“I really dig the theme in here.”
She turns back to her drink. “What theme?”
Brings the glass to her lips. “You like that there’s no theme?”
“Yeah. Seems intentional. Doesn’t it? Sort of like an...anti-theme. Meta. Or something.”
Trying to appear like an intellectual. Maybe just drunk. Or not drunk enough.
Still, 5th street bankers (she made him for a banker, they were always bankers) didn’t normally allude to anything outside the realm of money—how much they made, how much more they were going to make. So she’s unsure how to respond but luckily the guy is already speaking again.
“So,” he says, “You like this place?”
She puts the cigarette between her lips. “It’s fine.”
“Fine. Yeah.” Poor guy still hasn’t gotten his drink. He’s staring daggers at the bartender’s back, cursing under his breath. Turns to her and suddenly there it is. The look. He grins at her.
Good, she thinks, blowing out smoke. Let’s keep this nice and predictable. Just make it till midnight and then I’m out of here.
Until tomorrow night. When she’d be somewhere else. Playing the same part in the same scene all over again. Because someone stopped her on the street and said she should be a model. That they’d pay her to go to this bar, pretend to like it. That it would make other people want to go there too. Because he thought she had a look. Hip, cool. Whatever.
When she’d signed the papers, signed over her soul, he’d looked at her and smiled. With her the place would be the new Hot Spot for sure. He actually said those words. She didn’t have to sleep with the guys. Just pretend to like them. But mostly, like the place. Act like she liked it.
She hated everything.
Returning to our scene: The guy who’s probably a banker is nodding, looking at her with that look that’s more of a stare, the one she sees every time from every guy she’s pulled this on, tapping on the bar again, his face glistening in the dreary orange light.
Okay. Time to lay it on.
She glances away, then back again. Flashes smile, flutters lashes. The whole Bettie Boop routine. She doesn’t feel bad because she used to be an actress. And technically this was acting. Pretending. Like playing make-believe. Harmless.
As she finishes her cigarette she takes in the guy, the desperation. Practically licking his lips, sweat dripping now. She wants to vomit. Not just from the sweat or the situation itself. It’s the ear hair too. The amount he’s accumulated. How old does one have to be to accumulate that much ear hair? She contemplates this as she lifts her glass.
The guy arches his eyebrows. Eager now . Excited. “Done your drink?”
“Good. Cause I’m gonna buy you another one. That okay?”
Listen to Mr. Big asking for consent. An intellectual and a gentleman.
“Sounds like a plan.”
She puts out the cigarette. Reaches for another when she hears him say, “Hey. I know you.”
She stops, glances over. He’s staring, but in a different way now.
“I mean. I’ve seen you. On stage.”
Her heart catches in her throat. The world around her goes a little fuzzy but when she blinks it’s back to normal again. She keeps her cool, which is good because that’s her job.
“It was...boy, a while ago now. At the Lantern Theatre? That old playhouse in town. Yeah, that was you. Wasn’t it?”
There is a rush, a glimmer of something.
“Don’t be embarrassed,” he says. “You were...really something.”
He keeps talking but his voice becomes distant, as if from another room. Then it’s like he’s not even there. She’s somewhere else too. Standing on the wooden stage again. One-woman show.
Intimate, vulnerable. Experimental. Slitting her wrists in front of an audience. Fake blood flowing down her arms. Dark red pooling around white shoes. Feeling the rush. Exhilarated.
Falling onto her knees in the spotlight and crying, real tears because it felt so real. The energy around her glows, magnified by the hushed elation of the small crowd. Her cries echo in the silence.
She shakes her head, grabs the glass from the bar. Tries to drown the images, along with the rest of her drink.
Holds the empty glass in front of her, feeling weak, grip loosening. All she can do is watch in slow-motion as it falls away, tips over on the bar.
“Sorry,” she says, grabbing napkins, even her own voice sounding far away. The guy next to her does this too, drying from his side.
As they soak up the spill the guy starts saying something. Asking if she’s all right. But there’s the blurring again. She leans back. Dizzy, like suddenly her chair is perched way up high and she is teetering, about to fall. She closes her eyes. Grips the sides of the chair, remembers she’s actually in some lousy bar in a city she doesn’t even like, pretending to be someone she isn’t, someone cool.
Staring at the bar in front of her she remembers an instructor in one of her acting classes saying,
“Always be present.”
The guy’s still staring. Sly grin gone. Face contorting into worry, confusion.
She leans forward. Picks up the glass, sets it back on the bar.
Your line, she thinks. Say your line.
“So,” she says. “How about that drink?”
The guy slowly coming back now, grin returning. But then he’s shaking his head, saying, “So wait. The play. That was you, right?”
“No,” she says. “Wasn’t me.”
“Had to be.”
“Are you sure?”
“So...I have you confused with some other cool-looking chick with tattoos and a nose stud?”
“Cool looking...” She tries to laugh, starts tapping the bottom of the empty glass on the bar,
first softly, then at a steadier pace.
Say your line. Just say your line.
“No, hold on, I’m pretty sure—”
Come on. Get on with it. Get to the part where you—
She brings the glass down, smashing it.
An absence of sound. Slow-motion again. A glint from the edge of a jagged piece of glass, suspended in mid-air.
The moment. Staying in it.
She closes her eyes and she’s there again. In the pool of warm light. Her body sways, basking in the glow. She starts to slide and her fingers grip the edges of the vinyl chair she is on. The moment flickers. She grips tighter, not wanting it to leave. Opens her eyes and everything is fuzzy again. Her gaze drifts down to her arms covered in streaks of red, dripping onto broken glass on the floor.
Sounds fade in. Gasps from the audience.
Trying to stay in the moment. She knows she can. A faint voice next to her. Shouting.
Asking the bartender for a rag, jesus christ, something to wrap her arms. Yelling for someone to call for help. She feels light all over. A smile on her face.
Her body starts to sag and she doubles over. Does this slowly, gracefully. For a moment bowing.