I’m sitting on an inflatable mattress with my unnamed kitten, contemplating all the reasons I shouldn’t go back to that bar.
I didn’t come back to this town to meet guys. Even guys as good looking as that bartender. I’m here for my daughter and that’s it.
Tomorrow is important. Tomorrow I need to feel Herculean, but the bartender unintentionally made me feel weak by pulling away my glass of wine. I don’t know what he saw on my face that made him want to take the wine away from me. I wasn’t going to drink it. I only ordered it so I could feel a sense of control in not drinking it. I wanted to look at it and smell it and then walk away from it feeling stronger than when I sat down.
Now I just feel unsettled because he saw how I was looking at the wine earlier, and the way he pulled it away makes me think he assumes I have an active issue with alcohol.
I don’t. I haven’t had alcohol in years because one night of alcohol mixed with a tragedy ruined the last five years of my life, and the last five years of my life have led me back to this town, and this town makes me nervous, and the only thing that calms my nerves is doing things that make me feel like I’m still in control of my life and my decisions.
That’s why I wanted to turn down the wine, dammit.
Now I’m not going to sleep well tonight. I have no reason to feel accomplished because he made me feel the complete opposite. If I want to sleep well tonight, I’m going to need to turn down something else I want.
I haven’t wanted anyone in a long, long time. Not since I first met Scotty. But the bartender was kind of hot, and he had a great smile, and he
makes great coffee, and he already invited me to come back, so it’ll be simple to show up and turn him down.
Then I’ll sleep well and be prepared to wake up and face the most important day of my life.
I wish I could take my new kitten with me. I feel like I need a sidekick, but she’s asleep on the new pillow I bought at the store earlier.
I didn’t buy much. The inflatable mattress, a couple of pillows and sheets, some crackers and cheese, and some cat food and litter. I decided I’m only going to live two days at a time in this town. Until I know what tomorrow will bring, there’s no sense in my wasting any of the money I’ve been working six months to save up. I’m already running low, which is why I choose not to call a cab.
I leave the apartment to walk back to the bar, but I don’t carry my purse or my notebook with me this time. I just need my driver’s license and my apartment key. It’s about a mile-and-a-half walk from my apartment to the bar, but it’s nice out and the road is well lit.
I’m a little concerned that someone might recognize me at the bar, or even on my walk there, but I look completely different than I did five years ago. I used to care more about self-maintenance, but five years in prison has made me less concerned about hair dye and extensions and false lashes and artificial nails.
I didn’t live in this town long enough to make many friends outside of Scotty, so I doubt many people even know who I am. I’m sure plenty of them know of me, but it’s hard to be recognized when you aren’t even missed.
Patrick and Grace might recognize me if they saw me, but I only met them once before going to prison.
Prison. I’ll never get used to saying that word. It’s such a hard word to say out loud. When you lay the letters out on paper individually, they don’t seem that harsh. But when you say the word out loud, “Prison,” it’s just so damn severe.
When I think about where I’ve been for the last five years, I like to refer to it in my head as the facility. Or I’ll think of my time there as When I was away, and leave it at that. To say “When I was in prison” is not something I’ll ever get used to.
I’ll have to say it this week when I look for a job. They’ll ask, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” I’ll have to say, “Yes, I spent five years in prison for involuntary manslaughter.”
And they’ll either hire me or they won’t. They probably won’t.
There’s a double standard for women, even behind bars. When women say they’ve been to prison, people think trash, whore, addict, thief. But when men say they’ve been to prison, people add badges of honor to the negative thoughts, like trash, but badass, addict, but tough, thief, but impressive.
There’s still a stigma with the men, but the women never get out with stigmas and badges of honor.
According to the clock on the courthouse, I make it back downtown at eleven thirty. Hopefully he’s still here even though I’m half an hour late.
I didn’t pay attention to the name of the bar earlier, probably because it was daylight out and I was shocked it was no longer a bookstore, but there’s a small neon sign above the door that reads WARD’s.
I hesitate before going back inside. My return presence is more or less sending this guy a message. A message I’m not sure I want him to receive. But the alternative is my going back to that apartment and being alone with my thoughts.
I’ve spent enough time alone with my thoughts over the past five years. I’m craving people and noise and all the things I haven’t had, and my apartment reminds me a little of prison. There’s a lot of loneliness and silence there.
I open the door of the bar. It’s louder and smokier and somehow darker than it was earlier. There are no empty seats, so I weave through people, find the restroom, wait in the hall, wait outside, weave some more. Finally, a booth opens up. I cross the room and sit in it alone.
I watch the bartender flow behind the bar. I like how unbothered he seems. Two guys get into an argument, but he doesn’t care—he just points to the door and they leave. He does that a lot. Points at things, and people just do the things he points out for them to do.
He points at two customers while making eye contact with the other bartender. That bartender walks up to them and closes out their tabs.
He points to an empty shelf, and one of the waitresses nods, and then a few minutes later she has the shelf restocked.
He points at the floor, and the other bartender disappears through the double doors and reappears with a mop to clean up a spill.
He points to a hook on the wall, and another waitress, a pregnant one, mouths, “Thank you,” and she hangs up her apron and goes home.
He points, and people do, and then it’s last call, and then it’s time to close. People trickle out. No one trickles in.
He hasn’t looked at me. Not even once.
I second-guess being here. He seems busy, and maybe I read him wrong earlier. I just assumed when he told me to come back that he said it for a reason, but maybe he tells all his customers that.
I stand up, thinking maybe I need to trickle out, too, but when he sees me stand, he points. He makes a simple motion with his finger, indicating for me to sit back down, so I do.
I’m relieved to know my intuition was right, but the emptier the bar gets, the more nervous I grow. He assumes I’m a grown-ass woman, but I barely feel like an adult. I’m a twenty-six-year-old teenager, inexperienced, starting from scratch.
I’m not sure I’m here for the right reasons. I thought I could just walk in, flirt with him, and then walk away, but he’s more tempting than any bougie coffee. I came here to turn him down, but I had no idea that he would be pointing all night, or that he would point at me. I had no idea pointing was sexy.
I wonder if I would have found it sexy five years ago, or if I’m pathetically easy to please now.
By midnight, we’re the only two people left. The other employees have gone, the door is now locked, and he’s carrying a case of empty glasses to the back.
I pull my leg up and wrap my arms around it. I’m nervous. I didn’t come back to this town to meet a guy. I’m in this town with a much bigger purpose. One he looks like he could derail with the point of a finger.
I’m only human, though. Humans need companions, and even though I didn’t return to this town to meet people, this guy is hard to ignore.
He walks through the double doors with a different shirt on. He’s no longer wearing the purple collared shirt with the rolled-up sleeves that all the other employees were wearing. He put on a white T-shirt. So simple, but so complicated.
He smiles when he reaches me, and I feel that smile slip over me with the warmth of a weighted blanket. “You came back.”
I try to act unaffected. “You asked me to.” “You want something to drink?”
He touches his hair now, pushing it back, staring down at me. There’s a war in his eyes, and I am by no means Switzerland, but he comes to me anyway. Sits next to me. Right next to me. My heart beats faster, even faster than when Scotty came to my register for a fourth time all those years ago.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
I don’t want him to know my name. He looks like he could be the age Scotty would be now if Scotty were alive, which means he might recognize my name, or me, or remember what happened. I don’t want anyone to know me, or remember, or warn the Landrys that I’m in town.
It isn’t a small town, but it isn’t huge either. My presence won’t go unnoticed for long. I just need it to go unnoticed for long enough, so I lie, sort of, and give him my middle name. “Nicole.”
I don’t ask him what his name is because I don’t care. I’ll never use it.
I’ll never come back here after tonight.
I pull at a strand of my hair, nervous at being so close to someone after so long. I feel like I’ve forgotten what to do, so I just blurt out what I came here to say. “I wasn’t going to drink it.”
He tilts his head, confused by my confession, so I clarify.
“The wine. Sometimes I . . .” I shake my head. “It’s dumb, but I do this thing where I order alcohol specifically to walk away from it. I don’t have a drinking problem. It’s more like an issue with control, I think. Makes me feel less weak.”
His eyes scan my face with the slightest hint of a smile. “I respect that,” he says. “I rarely drink for similar reasons. I’m around drunk people every night, and the more I’m around them, the less I want to be among them.”
“A bartender who doesn’t drink? That’s rare. Right? I’d think bartenders would have one of the highest rates of alcoholism. Easy access.” “That’s actually the construction industry. Which probably isn’t good
for my odds. I’ve been building a house for several years now.” “You’re really setting yourself up for failure.”
He smiles. “Looks that way.” He relaxes into the booth a little more. “What do you do, Nicole?”
This is the moment I should walk away. Before I say too much, before he asks more questions. But I like his voice and his presence, and I feel like staying here would be distracting, and I really need a distraction right now.
I just don’t want to talk. Talking will only get me in trouble in this town.
“Do you really want to know what I do for a living?” I’m sure he’d rather have his hand up my shirt than hear whatever it is a girl would say in this moment. And since I don’t want to admit that I do nothing for a living because I’ve been locked up for five years, I slide onto his lap.
It surprises him, almost as if he really did expect us to sit here and chat for the next hour.
His expression changes from mild shock to acceptance. His hands fall to my hips, and he grips them. I shiver from the contact.
He adjusts me so that I’m sitting a little farther up, and I can feel him through his jeans, and I’m suddenly not as confident that I can walk away as I was five seconds ago. I thought I could kiss him and then tell him good night and saunter home with pride. I just wanted to feel a little bit powerful before tomorrow, but now he’s dragging his fingers across the skin on my waist, and it’s making me weaker and weaker, and so fucking thoughtless. Not thoughtless as in uncaring, but thoughtless as in empty inside my head, and feeling everything in my chest, like a ball of fire is building inside of me.
His right hand slides up my back, and I gasp because I feel his touch surge through me like a current. This guy is touching my face now, running his fingers down my cheekbone, and then his fingertips across my lips. He’s staring at me like he’s trying to figure out where he knows me from.
Maybe that’s just my paranoia at work. “Who are you?” he whispers.
I already told him, but I repeat my middle name anyway. “Nicole.”
He smiles but then loses the smile and says, “I know your name. But where’d you come from? Why have we never met before tonight?”
I don’t want his questions. I have no honest answers. I move a little closer to his mouth. “Who are you?”
“Ledger,” he says, right before he rips open my past, pulls out what’s left of my heart, drops it on the floor, and then kisses me.
People say you fall in love, but fall is such a sad word when you think about it. Falls are never good. You fall on the ground, you fall behind, you fall to your death.
Whoever was the first person to say they fell in love must have already fallen out of it. Otherwise, they’d have called it something much better.
Scotty told me he loved me halfway into our relationship. It was the night I was supposed to meet his best friend for the first time. I had already met his parents, and he was excited for that, but not nearly as excited as he was to introduce me to the guy he considered a brother.
That meeting never happened. I can’t remember why; it’s been a long time. But his friend had to cancel, and Scotty was sad, so I baked him cookies and we smoked a joint and then I gave him head. Best girlfriend ever.
Until I killed him.
But this was three months before he would die, and on that particular night, even though he was sad, he was very much alive. He had a beating heart and a rapid pulse and a heaving chest and tears in his eyes when he said, “I fucking love you, Kenna. I love you more than I’ve ever loved anyone. I miss you all the time, even when we’re together.”
That stuck with me. “I miss you all the time, even when we’re together.”
And I thought that was the only thing that stuck with me that night, but I was wrong. Something else stuck with me. A name. Ledger.
The best friend who never showed. The best friend I never got to meet.
The best friend who just put his tongue in my mouth and his hand up my shirt and his name in my chest.