Unraveled, p.4
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       Unraveled, p.4

         Part #3 of Woodlands series by Jen Frederick
 
Page 4

 

  But my bar persona was pretty good, I thought. I pretended to be happy, made appropriate jokes, and flirted with my co-bartender Eve because I couldn’t bring myself to flirt with the men at the bar. I even slicked on mascara and painted my lips dark red so that I didn’t look like a sad girl who’d lost her husband before she’d turned twenty. I wasn’t the best-looking member of the staff, but I wasn’t going to embarrass any of the Gatsby’s ownership either.

  “Do you think you’ll be okay?" Mark pressed, shifting from foot to foot. Didn’t he ever tire of that question? In the days and weeks following my breakdown, I understood why he asked. When I started crying, it had actually set off a chain reaction, and then the bar had cleared because it was too depressing. I got that it had been a bad night of receipts for Mark, but bringing it up every time I came into work seemed a tad excessive.

  "Im not on the rag if thats what youre asking. ” I decided to pretend like I had no idea what he was talking about.

  "Fine. " Mark threw up his hands and walked off in a huff. In a contest between which topic was least comfortable—talking about a girls period or a girls husbands death—I guess period talk won out. I finished wiping down the bar top and putting the glasses away. Mark would return. He just wanted to shake off the horrible vision that Id popped into his head. I smiled a little evilly to myself. Maybe hed associate periods with death from now on and never bring up either subject again.

  Mark wandered back when Id put up the last glass. "Im putting you at the outdoor bar. You and Eve. "

  "Ten four. " I gave him a salute. Eve was a good bartender; she was able to flirt just enough to make the guys feel handsome and strong without going so far over the line that her boyfriend, a bouncer here, felt threatened. Working at the bar meant I could concentrate on a constant buzz of activity instead of how fricking alone I felt all the time.

  "Let me know if you have any trouble. " Mark held the hinged part of the bar top up as I slid under.

  "And then what?" I asked. When Mark just shrugged, I patted him on his biceps. He meant well, I suppose.

  The band was good and it was a gorgeous evening, so the patio bar was hopping by eight that night. Our uniforms of short black shorts and tight white t-shirts that constantly got wet ensured that the bar crowd stood three to five deep at all times. Eve and I had taken to wearing tanks underneath our Gatsby’s tops to avoid giving a free show to the guys, but they still showed up. I guess hope springs eternal.

  “Did you see the eye candy Adam brought in tonight?" Eve waggled her eyebrows at me as she poured two draws at once. Adam was the son of the owner of Gatsby’s. The table just to the left of the stage was always reserved for him and his crew. The patio bar was positioned on the right of the stage.

  “Nope. ” And I hadn’t. Despite my loneliness, actual guys didn’t interest me much. They sometimes looked at me with lust in their eyes, usually after last call they’d come up to the bar hoping that maybe Eve or I would take up the offer that had be declined throughout the night.

  I turned to look over at Adam’s table, but per usual, I couldn’t see anyone. I was too short. At five ten, Eve stood a good five inches taller than me and could generally see into the crowd. I’d have to wait until the crowd moved or the band took a break.

  “Mmm. " She’d spotted him again. "Tall, buff, buzz cut so short you can see his scalp?"

  Eh. Eve and I had very different ideas of what was hot in a guy. Her boyfriend, Randy, was all neck, shoulders, and muscles, which was a good fit for her because she was taller. A guy like Randy felt overpowering to me. I liked them short and wiry, and none of the guys in Adam’s group were that type. His guys were all buff and muscled, as if they were some traveling men’s fitness troupe. And, worse, at least a couple of them were former military. I could just tell by the way they held their bodies and looked around constantly, as if they feared some mortar attack from the sky.

  When I got back into the dating game, which I would someday when I stopped missing Will so much, I wouldn’t be with another military guy. My perfect man was someone who loved statistics more than guns and whose idea of a grand time was shopping for a new ruler or pen. Maybe he’d even be a fellow knitter and we’d sit side by side on the sofa watching Downton Abbey and knitting each other socks. Those guys weren’t coming to the bar, though. Some smart girls had already snapped them up and were hiding those treasures in their homes.

  I’d shared this with Eve once and, after I’d finished my description, she’d shaken her head. “There are two rules for dating you should never forget. One, he should be strong enough so you can have sex standing up and two, never, ever date a guy who could wear your jeans. It’s terrible for the confidence when you see your skinny jeans looking better on his ass than yours. Learn from my sad dating history,” she admonished me. Randy sure fit both those rules and so did most of Adam’s crew. I was making up my own standards though and tall, buff, brawny guys didn’t meet them.

  "You know him?" I asked Eve when I swung back her way after serving a couple of drinks.

  "No, but Id like to. " She bit her fist in mock appreciation of his fineness. "Since Im taken, I guess Ill have to leave him to you. ”

  "I thought I was going to be the threesome in your and Randys bed tonight," I teased, trying to divert the discussion away from Eve’s supposed man candy.

  "Thats a threesome Id like to see. " One of the bar customers leaned against the bar, waving a twenty. The guys who came to Gatsby’s in their hundred-dollar bargain suits were trying far too hard, but their clothing attracted a certain type of girl, and I hardly ever saw a guy with a suit go home alone. I wondered what the girls thought when they were taken back to the guys apartment that he shared with three others. Probably the same thing a guy thought when a girl took off her miracle bra. Disappointment all around.

  "Its a hundred dollars," Eve said to Mr. Suit, while tapping his twenty. "Youll need four more of these. "

  "A hundred for what?"

  "If you give them a hundred, theyll kiss. " One of our regulars whod been sitting at the bar since five that afternoon explained the rules. When Eve and I worked, guys were always asking for sexual things. I never really understood why they hit on us. Did they think that their ten spot was going to buy our phone numbers? Or that their lame catchphrases like ""What time you getting off tonight?" were going to make us bend over and drop our shorts? My favorite was "When are you two going to kiss? Ill pay twenty dollars for that!" just like this joker.

  Eve and I once said that wed kiss for a hundred, and since then, wed get offered the money several times a night. I guess it fueled some fantasy. A hundred bucks to kiss a friend? Too easy to resist.

  Suit Man rounded up his friends and slapped a hundred dollars on the table. "Now kiss. "

  "Kiss. Kiss. Kiss. " The chant rose up from the bar. Eve finished delivering four mugs of beer and I slipped the lime wedges on a couple of tequila shots before we met in the middle. She dug her fingers into my hair and whispered against my mouth. "Someday you oughta try kissing a guy. " Then she gave me a wet kiss as I held on to her shoulders.

  When we broke apart to the shouts of encouragement, I responded. "Only if I can make fifty bucks per kiss. " Scooping up the money, I stuck it in my back pocket to split later.

  She swatted me on the ass and turned back to the customers. Watching us kiss made them thirsty. When Maisey, the waitress serving Adams table, swung by with an order, Eve grabbed her tray and started pumping her for information. I was a little ashamed to say I sidled down the bar so I could eavesdrop.

  “Whos the big guy Adam brought in?" Eve popped the caps of three bottles and set them on the tray and took to making the rest of Maiseys orders.

  "Arent they delicious? Id like a go with all of them. "

  "At one time?" Eve mocked.

  "Like you havent thought about it,” Maisey retorted.

  "You aint woman enough for all that man meat over yon
der," Eve said. "Dont know a woman who is. But anyway, the new guy. Whats his deal?"

  "Some Marine on leave for a couple of weeks. "

  A Marine? Yup, totally not interested. I drifted back down to my side of the bar. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Eve toss a sidelong glance my way while gabbing with Maisey. Eve filled the rest of the order and Maisey took off. Once Maisey was out of earshot, Eve came down to see me—a naughty look on her face. She was up to something. “Take a break. Maisey says that the band is finishing up the last song of this set. ” When the band took a rest, the patio usually emptied out as people went indoors to dance and hunt a different crowd. “Go on. ” She started shoving me out of the bar.

  “No. ” I resisted but she was stronger than I was and before I knew it, I was on the wrong side of the bar counter. “Fine, I’ll be back in thirty minutes. ”

  “Take your time,” she sang and turned back to help some patrons.

  With the band still playing a cover of “Mr. Brightside” behind me, I easily made my way to the interior of the bar and headed for the rear exit. Maybe I’d sit in my Rover and read or work a little on the layette set I was making my mother’s very pregnant administrative assistant. I’d been kind of slacking off since the good weather hit, spending more time on my tiny balcony enjoying the breeze and drinking ice tea than inside knitting, surrounded by all the artifacts of my dead husband’s life.

  “Samantha Anderson, I haven’t seen you in ages!”

  Teresa Bush, she of the unfortunate last name, came barreling toward me. Teresa, Will and I had graduated together. In high school, we were probably known as friends but I hadn’t laid eyes on her since Will’s funeral.

  “You look great. ” Her skintight sparkly red dress was a little upscale for Gatsby’s, but it matched the suits we occasionally saw wander in after work and then stay until closing. She must be enjoying a night away from her kid. At the funeral, I’d asked if she was expecting her second, and the glare she’d pinned on me had me feeling my chest for an open wound. I thought the black look she’d cast me was because I didn’t remember her kid’s name but Mom had told me later that I should never ask a woman if she was pregnant.

  “You are looking…” She paused, groping for the right word. My mascara was likely making smudges around my eyes and I could feel my hair slipping out of its ponytail so Teresa was looking for an honest word to describe “mess” without being offensive.

  “Like a bartender?” I offered.

  She gave me a slightly superior smile, “Ha! No, good, really good. Gosh, I don’t think I’ve seen you since the funeral. It’s so good that you’re getting out and being social again. ”

  “I work here,” I said blandly.

  “Oh right. ” She tittered and then placed her hand on my shoulder to stabilize herself. “I just don’t get out very often and I think I need to sit down. Come talk to me. It’s been so long. Did you know I got a tattoo done by Tucker? Do you want to see it?” She started pulling down the bodice of her red dress. Alarmed, I looked around for Mark, thinking that he could call her a cab. It was early though, barely nine thirty. Poor girl must not get out much what with the kid at home. “Um, should I call you a cab?”

  “Why?” She smiled drunkenly at me. “Are we going to go to another party? I can’t believe you’re here. You are so brave. So so brave. ” She hiccupped. “If my husband had died after just two months of marriage I think I would’ve died myself. You looked so fragile at the wedding. Or funeral. Which was it?”

  My feelings of sympathy toward her were fast evaporating and I needed to escape. Like David, Teresa didn’t need a response. She rambled on, telling me about her kid and how it was nearly impossible to get a night to herself and how the Mai Tais we served were delicious. I tried to look rapt while searching for a way to escape. One of my stupid reasons not to move to Alaska with Will when he went there to learn how to jump out of airplanes was that I didn’t want to be away from my friends and family. But as Teresa described a life experience a thousand miles from what I knew, the pain of regret squeezed my heart tight.

  I looked around for assistance, but no one appeared available. Heck, no one even seemed to be paying attention to us as she rattled on about how much food her five year old ate and how clever he was for using a fork. No one noticed my predicament besides a tall guy leaning against the interior bar with a smile dancing around the edges of his mouth. Below the short sleeves of his T-shirt, the muscles in his arms were well-defined, and they flexed lightly as he supported his weight on his elbows. He was probably too far away to hear what she was saying, but he found something amusing about my situation.

 
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JEN FREDERICK SERIES:

Woodlands