It was one of those slower nights when Magazine Lady came in. She's always got a stack of beauty and real estate magazines and orders a diet coke or a coffee. She tips well enough and her mystery intrigues me. I've always wanted to ask her why so many magazines, why decide to read them in a bar and not order anything alcoholic? Though I've been that person quite a few times having coffee or tea at a bar or even just water, so I get it, on some level.
The last time she was in, the tipsy suits cornered her. She didn't answer. "You a magazine editor or something?"
"No," she had said cooly flipping a page. He tried again. "You're badgering me," she said, "I'm just trying to read."
Luckily his less rude or drunken colleague stepped in, paid the check and said it was nice meeting her and they had a dinner reservation.
There's a fine line between the spoken and unspoken. As a bartender, I try to respect people and let them talk when they want. "I try not to judge or peg people," which is what I told the South American tourist when he wanted me to tell him what I thought of his relationship with the woman standing next to him. He pushed, "is she my friend, my girlfriend, or my friend?"
I let the bait fall loose, knowing that the small fish are small.
"You're supposed to read people," he said.
I set his drink in front of him. "This is what I do, if you want analysis, you'll have to tip me more than 20%."
His girl smiled. "Good answer," she said rolling her eyes at him.
So I let Magazine Lady be. I know she had told me her name, but I had forgotten. It's easier to remember what people drink and what their stories are and so they keep coming back and it gets too late to ask their names again. I was trying to think of a way to find out politely when fate in the form of business traveler stepped in. He was from the midwest but used to live in the city he said. It was late and there were only four guests spaced out across the bar, the Swiss tourist drinking Sam Adams, another regular, Oren, Magazine Lady, and Jim who was introducing himself to Magazine Lady.
The last time she was in she was telling me about a date, how she had met someone at the bar when I wasn't working and how they went to french restaurant in the neighborhood, but it was terrible. She said they had bought a bottle of wine and then the waiter shooed them out before they finished their meal and their wine. I tried to guess where she had been. It sounded like the place I went to once for a bourbon after work. I met the owner. He invited me back to eat and said he'd take care of everything. I never took him up on it though. "The owner must not have been there that night," she said.
I didn't want to say but I sensed that somehow these things happen to her. Once she had given me a bracelet. A friend had given it to her but she said it seemed more my style. She said she noticed the paint was chipped on some of the plastic beads. "The bar is dark I said, no one will notice." I put it in my tip bucket.
Outside the sky had darkened. Cars flashed by in the windows. I poured the chardonnay Jim buys for her, which she had initially refused, but since he was pushy about it, I figured let him pay for it. “You don’t have to drink it,” I had said.
A few weeks after the incident, my manager calls me in to the office, says a woman came in and said that I was the reason she doesn’t stay at the hotel anymore. She said that I treat women as if they’re objects. I haven’t seen Magazine Lady since that night. I ask if the woman had long thinning auburn hair and lipstick that’s a little off, too bright and running into the cracks around her mouth. My boss said “yeah, hair up in a ponytail.”
I shrug. I recount the story and my boss taps a pencil on the bar. “These things happen,” she says.
“She lives in town, she doesn’t stay in the hotel,” I say, wondering why this white lie, but I know, somehow I let her down.
It’s summer now, months since Magazine Lady or the last time we even spoke of her. I keep thinking maybe one day she’ll be back but something in me says I’ll never see her again.
It’s her I think of when Kristie gestures at the end of the bar, at the tall man, shaved head, and asks “job hazard?”
“It comes with the territory, doesn’t happen much here. Like anything else, pros and cons. He’s been at it since we opened.”
She squeezes the lime into her drink, “I don’t know how you deal with it.”
I smile, “it’s busy enough that I can walk away when he gets a little more detailed.”
“The things I could do to you,” he had said as I skated away to the couple a few seats over.
“I practice yoga,” I say to Kristie, “it helps.”