“You remember the signal?”
“Yes, now go or he’ll get here and see you talking with me and wonder what’s up.”
“Okay, I’m headed over there now. Wish me luck.” Susan hiked her purse up on her shoulder and teased her bangs before walking off.
“You’re gonna need it,” Vanessa called after her in a teasing tone but Susan was already across the bar and setting into a booth. Vanessa spun the bar stool back around and found an angle where she could see Susan reflected in the mirror behind the bar.
“What can I get ya?” The bartender said as he moved towards her, wiping the bar down on his way.
“I’ll have a coke,” Vanessa answered as she shifted and contorted to see around him and re-establish her eyeline to Susan’s reflection. The bartender stepped into her way again, deliberately trying to get her attention. “Rum and coke or just coke?”
“Just coke. Designated driver.” She’d found Susan’s booth again but was nearly sitting on the barstool next to hers.
He moved a little ways back down the bar to fill a glass with ice. Vanessa straightened up and watched as the guy Susan had arranged to meet approached her booth. Then the bartender was blocking her view again and placing the soda in front of her with what became an inquisitive smile as Vanessa began to twist to see around him again.
“You meeting someone?”
“No.” She took a small sip from the soda and put it back on the bar. The guy had slid into the booth next to Susan rather than taking the seat opposite. Vanessa snorted in disgust.
“Okay, sorry I asked,” the bartender apologized, putting his hands up in surrender.
“Not you,” Vanessa said dismissively. “Susan. What is she doing?”
Vanessa gestured to the mirror where the angle revealed the stranger’s hand starting in on her friend’s thigh. The bartender turned, leaning back against the bar.
“Wow. He’s moving fast.”
“Shut up and turn around,” Vanessa hissed. “Could you be any more obvious?”
“I hope he’s not your boyfriend. And if he is, you should seriously consider breaking up with him because I can’t see that hand anymore.”
“He’s not my boyfriend,” Vanessa pulled her purse around and began rummaging through it till she found her cell phone. “She’s my best friend and I promised I wouldn’t let her do anything stupid tonight.” She pushed the button to call Susan and heard the ringing faintly through the crowd.
“Now come on,” the bartender said as he finally turned around. “That’s not very nice. He could be incredibly smart for all you know.”
“Very funny,” Vanessa watched in the mirror as Susan picked up her phone and hit the ignore button sending her to voicemail. Vanessa left a message anyway. “Susan, this is exactly why I didn’t want to help you when you first asked me and it’s why I won’t be helping you when you ask me next time. Sitting next to you in the booth? Come on. And don’t think I didn’t see his hand on your leg. I’m stepping it up to physical intervention because I’m your friend and this is what you asked for.”
“I’ll save your spot,” the bartender said as Vanessa jumped down from the bar stool and set out for the casual walk-by. He watched as she faked a double take and chatted animatedly with Susan and her date. The smiles on their faces were plastic and their eyes carried on a conversation all their own. Vanessa sat down and a small space opened up between the friend and the date. After a few minutes, Vanessa and Susan got up and went to the bathroom.
The bartender watched the date fiddling at the table, pop a few breath mints and look around at the other women in the bar. Finally, Susan and Vanessa emerged from the restroom and split up. Susan slid into the booth again, this time across from her date. Vanessa slapped her purse down on the bar and upset the glass with her soda.
“Hey,” the bartender hollered and attacked the spill with his towel. “I was keeping an eye on that for someone. She went to the bathroom where she seems to have stayed. Would you mind heading back there to see if you can find her?”
Vanessa glared at the man who was pouring her another soda. He moved to add a shot of rum to the glass. Vanessa nodded and he went ahead. “But just the one,” she amended.
“For now,” he replied with a smile. Vanessa sipped at the drink while he watched her. “You want to talk about it?”
“Not with you. I know you’re the sympathetic bartender, used to hearing bar flies’ sob stories. But that isn’t me.”
“So talk about something else. You don’t want to tell me about yourself, what about politics? Sports? Anything that will take your mind off of being mad at your ungrateful friend.” He stood leaning against the wall behind the bar with his arms crossed across his chest.
“I said I’m not talking to you. I’ve got to keep an eye on her, not let you distract me.”
“Well, it didn’t work. She and her date walked out just a minute ago. You know, while we were… what is it called? Oh, right. Talking.”
Vanessa whipped around and saw that the booth was empty. Susan and her date had left. “Ugh! I’ve got to go after them. What do I owe?”
She began rifling through her purse for the cash while he printed her twelve-dollar bill. She located a twenty and pulled her phone out to call Susan and yell at her voicemail again. With the phone in her hand, the purse felt lighter, but not the lighter it usually felt when she took her phone out. It felt even lighter. And quieter.
Slapping the twenty onto the bar with her phone, she began pulling everything out of her purse.
“Your change.” The bartender extended a hand with the extra bills but paused when he saw the pile of trash, half-used pens, cosmetics, and first-aid supplies accumulating on the bar. “Is something wrong?”
“That bitch! She took my keys. Took ‘em right out of my purse.” Vanessa plunked herself right back down at the bar and began sorting through the detritus that had formerly inhabited her purse.
“Do you want me to call you a cab?”
“Later. Right now I want you to get me a drink. Beer. Whatever you recommend. Surprise me.”
The bartender smiled and started to get a chilled mug ready. “I think you’ll like this one, but if not, I have another one you could try.”
“Wait… sir?” Vanessa closed her eyes and shook her head a little, embarrassed. He came back with her beer, sliding it to her on a cheap coaster. “Sorry but… I don’t know your name.”
“I’m Rick. You?”
“Vanessa.” They smiled briefly.
“Well, I’m sorry your friend is such a bitch. This next one is on me.”
“I’m sorry she’s such a bitch too.” Vanessa chugged most of the beer. “That’s the last favor I’m ever doing for her.” Vanessa finished off the dregs and nodded for another.
“Savor this one. Drink it slow and appreciate it. If you just want to get drunk, I’ll switch you over to the cheap stuff but first, take your time with this one. This is the one I’m buying you so you need to enjoy it. Cause I don’t get a second chance to buy you a first drink and I’m starting to regret offering it now. Just… wasn’t sure I’d get another chance…” He trailed off as Vanessa put down the empty glass.
He shook his head with a smile. “Nothing. So, how many times has your friend done this? And how many more times are you going to let her do this? Are you the kind of girl who says it’s the last time but ends up coming back for more because you just can’t help it?”
Vanessa stared blankly before gently pushing the beer mug back to the bartender. “That was good. But now, I need the cheap stuff. And keep it coming.”
Rick pulled another beer off the tap and placed it in front of her but pulled it away when she reached for it. “I’ll trade you for your phone. You’ve already lost your keys and left a nasty message on your friend’s voicemail. You don’t want to turn into that crazy lady who can’t stop running her mouth off when she’s had a few. You’ll thank me for this later.”
Vanessa surrendered her cell phone and took a long swig of beer. “For the record, I don’t fun off my mouth when I get drunk. I get quiet. And hot.” She took off her light sweater and hung it clumsily on the back of her stool.
“Noted,” he smiled. “I’ll put the phone back in your purse when I call you a cab.”
“Let me guess,” Vanessa grinned as she pushed the empty mug towards him. “You’re gonna put your number in my phone first.”
“I would never do such a thing,” he protested with mock horror. “It would be against everything I stand for as a bartender. I’m supposed to serve and protect patrons, not take advantage of them myself.”
“Serve and protect? Isn’t that cops?”
Rick smiled at the wary expression on Vanessa’s face. He could see she was still a few drinks away from her limit but wasn’t going to let her go that far. “You’re right but this is going to be your last one. I’ll go call you that cab.” He left her with one last beer and made the call.
Vanessa had pulled off her blouse in his absence and was sitting in her camisole finishing off the last of the beer when he returned. The decorative lace edging of her bra rose above the low neckline of the cami, briefly distracting Rick from what he was supposed to be telling her.
“Your cab will be here in a minute.” He reached into his apron pocket for her phone. She held out her open purse and he dropped the phone he’d retrieved into the mess she’d made stuffing everything back in earlier.
Vanessa slid gracelessly off the stool and grabbed at her sweater and shirt. She nearly landed on the floor when she spun back to put a twenty down on the bar.
“Does that cover it?” Rick saw that she was blinking a lot and fighting to establish an appearance of sobriety.
“Yeah,” he took the cash and started to come around the bar. “Please let me help you to the cab.”
“Be as gentlemanly as you want,” she teased. “But I’m not gonna give you my number so don’t even bother asking.”
He held the cab door open and guided her head in so she didn’t smack it on the roof. “I wouldn’t dream of it.” He closed the door and turned back to the bar before the cab had a chance to pull away from the curb.
Several hours later when Rick finally arrived home and went to charge his cell, he realized the phone he held was not his. He chuckled and put it down on his dresser to deal with in the morning.