I was telling Cara, my boss, about a recurring work nightmare. ‘People kept coming in, and they were yelling at me, but I didn’t know what anyone ordered, and the food was coming out all wrong, and I couldn’t remember how to make a long island iced tea.’
‘Yeah, a weeded dream,’ Cara said. She had long blonde hair that she wore in a ponytail, pulled through the back of a black Fox’s baseball cap. This was how I always pictured her, the back of her head, standing in front of the grill or the stove, reading tickets and calling out orders. Now she was standing in the galley, drinking soda from the small paper cups we used for coffee to-go. She left the kitchen a few times a day to cool off. Her apron was folded down to her waist. The first week we knew each other she’d made me feel her breasts. She was a C cup and used to be a small B.
‘What’s a weeded dream?’ I asked.
‘Weeded means busy. Jesus, how do you not know these things?’ Then, as if talking to a baby, ‘Our little all star! So cute!’ She pressed her cheek to mine and yelled to her husband. ‘Nick, Darla didn’t know what weeded meant!’
He leaned around a corner to look at us and laugh, then went back to changing out a keg.
They called me Darla as a play on darling, as in, isn’t it darling that she doesn’t know anything about life? That’s how they thought of me, but I didn’t want to know the things they knew. They knew how to make cocktails, and drink until dawn, and ride motorcycles, and do something called a poker run, which I gathered was some version of a bar crawl on motorcycles and it worried me sick. I’d made it my whole life in Wickham without gaining that knowledge. It was a point of pride.
It had been a point of pride.
It was a Friday, the busiest best night for tips. There was always someone yelling to me, or waving money in my face. I peeled dollar bills off the bar, soaked in rail liquor or sticky with Coke, and picked up coins one at a time with my fingernails, and threw it all in a tip bucket behind the beer tap. Until last week I had been telling myself I was only doing this until I had enough to fund my new life. But then my best friend Julie told me she couldn’t move with me to Paris, as we’d been planning to do since we were college sophomores, and so there was no point to any of it. She told me I should go alone, find an internship, stay for free in her brother’s apartment. But moving alone sounded crazy.
The last person to leave stumbled into the door on his way out, but I couldn’t muster the same concern I used to feel. I washed the bar glasses while Nick did the drawer. Cara always went home hours earlier, when the kitchen closed, through the hedge at the end of the parking lot and into their backyard.
‘Darla, what in hell is your problem this week?’ A dum-dum lollipop was hanging from Nick’s mouth. He didn’t look up.
I shrugged. I hadn’t told anyone my plans to finally get out of here, which saved me the humiliation of telling them those plans were ruined.
‘Have a drink,’ he said. Most nights Nick drank Jim Beam and water from a stool on the end of the bar.
He pushed his glass toward me. I picked it up with a wet, soapy hand and drank all of it.
‘That was good,’ I said. I’d thought I hated bourbon.
Nick laughed. ‘I know, that’s why I drink it. Make us two more, huh?’
I poured two more and drank some more. My face felt hot, my jaw sort of loose.
Nick went to the juke box. Everyone always left the bar drunk. Everyone always drove home. I kept washing glasses. AC/DC Back in Black started playing. Three more glasses to wash. Nick’s hands were on my hips and I felt his stubble on the top of my head. I froze.
My face was so hot. I knew it was wrong but I liked him being so close. I leaned backward a little bit.
He slid his hands forward, his right hand over the top of my jeans, between my legs, and his left under my shirt. His hands were cold and I squealed.
‘Let’s go in the office,’ Nick said, gesturing to the windows all around the bar.
I drank the rest of my drink and followed him to the back of the bar. He sat in the big leather desk chair and looked at me.
I meant to turn off the light but I forgot.
Cara was home sick for the next two days but the guilt came as soon as I saw her.
‘Darla, missed you,’ she said, draping her arm over my shoulder. I was slicing limes and hadn’t heard her come in.
I looked up at her and remembered to smile. ‘You weren’t away very long.’
‘I missed my kitchen. God knows what goes on when I’m not here. What was the special last night?’
‘I’m not sure. I didn’t work last night.’ I concentrated on maintaining eye contact with her. Guilty people look away. I did have off last night, but I’d also fucked her husband again, in the office during the lunch rush.
‘Oh, right. Wednesdays. Want to get me a tea?’
‘Of course,’ I said. Wednesdays. That’s just what I did on Wednesdays. I filled a mug with hot water and took a tea bag from the box. I set it in front of her and wondered what I would do if she threw it at me.
‘Thanks Darrrrr…lin.’ She grinned.
‘Honey?’ I asked.
‘Nah.’ She breathed in the steam from the mug and I kept slicing limes.
‘There’s my lady,’ Nick said, coming around the corner. He sat next to Cara and kissed her cheek.
‘Don’t get too close,’ Cara said. ‘You’re a weak old man. You’d never survive this.’
‘I’m not. I’m big and strong,’ Nick said. He stood and glowered over her.
‘Don’t hurt me.’ Cara slumped against the bar, making her voice tiny and soft.
I was jealous. I was ridiculous.
Ben came in, his helmet under his right arm. He liked me. He asked me out at least once a month but I always said no.
‘Ben!’ Nick bellowed. ‘What’s with the pussy helmet?’
Ben took a stool a few down from Cara and set his helmet on the bar.
‘Maybe I need it for a passenger,’ Ben said, grinning at me.
I turned to Cara. ‘Is it OK if I go for a quick ride with Ben?’
‘Darla, you hate motorcycles,’ Cara said.
‘Darla,’ Ben snorted. ‘Nice nickname.’
Cara gave him the side eye. I could feel Nick staring but I kept my eyes on her.
‘Well maybe it’s time I give them a chance, right?’
‘Don’t look at me. I’m back of the house. Talk to this guy,’ Cara said, pointing her thumb at Nick.
I concentrated on relaxing my face and faced Nick. ‘I’ll only be gone an hour. Nobody’s here,’ I said, gesturing to the empty bar. It was always quiet between lunch and dinner.
‘Yeah, sure, have a good time.’
‘Do you really not like motorcycles?’ Ben said as he latched the helmet under my chin. The sun beat down on the asphalt and heat radiated from the bike. I felt my black Fox’s polo turn warm against my back. It was like that in the first few moments after leaving the chilly air conditioning, before the sweat settled on my upper lip and my shirt began to stick.
‘I don’t know. Never been on one.’
‘Oh, a virgin,’ he said, smirking.
Ben wasn’t bad looking. He’d just always been so predictable. But he had nice gray eyes and was sort of awkward in a charming way. He had exactly four freckles on his nose I’d never noticed before.
‘OK, so, just get on behind me, here on this seat,’ he said, gesturing to a rectangular leather seat behind his own infinity-shaped, wider seat. He swung a leg over the bike and sat down.
I hiked up my jeans, put my hands on his shoulders, and got on. I wished there was a back, what Cara called a sissy bar. Nick’s bike didn’t have one either, and he had a t-shirt that said, on the back: If you can read this the bitch fell off. Ben walked the bike back a bit and revved it.
‘Where do I put my feet?’ I yelled over the roar. I concentrated on logistics so that I wouldn’t think about how scared I felt. I did hate motorcycles. They seemed the easiest way to die.
He reached for my calves and pulled them toward him, onto a little running board.
‘Hold on,’ he yelled.
I did. His stomach was hard and trim. I wiped my sweaty palms against his t-shirt, feeling the fuzziness of some hair just under his belly button, then wrapped my hands around opposite wrists and inched closer. He smelled like soap and heat. And then we lurched and the engine roared beneath us and the air came so fast I couldn’t breathe. We went out past some farmland, corn stretching for miles. There was a banner advertising a corn maze: ‘Visit our maize maze.’ One of the four grommets was loose and whipped up as we passed. Ben went faster as we cruised up a hill and my stomach dropped as we crested it. Wickham looked almost scenic from above. My hands fell loose onto Ben’s hips, my thighs relaxed.
‘This is fun.’ I felt my lips move but couldn’t hear my voice.
We made a big square around the perimeter of town and took the bridge over the river and back toward the bar. Ben slowed in the traffic. My hair hung against my neck. There was one car and another bike in the lot. Nick was outside on the patio putting out the buckets that held napkins, ketchup and A1 sauce.
‘It’s better at night,’ Ben said as I handed him the helmet.
I nodded. ‘OK, see you tonight.’
On Sundays the bar closed at three, and Cara wanted to go on a double date. The hibachi place was almost an hour away, mostly through long stretches of nothing, dotted with trailer parks or gas stations, gone in moments.
We ate in a private room with two chefs at the grill and small pitchers of sake at each place setting. Nick and Cara made a toast every few minutes, and the waiters had to top up our pitchers.
‘Next stop is a surprise,’ Cara said.
Ben might have been drunk, but he was good on the bike. I’d been out with him after work almost every night for a few weeks, so I knew what he could handle. We pulled into a wide patch of gravel set between the road and a shed. It was completely dark except for a light bulb over the doorway.
‘Is this the right place?’
‘That’s Nick’s bike,’ he said. ‘Must be.’
On the other side of the two-lane road was marshland. A man passed in a pickup truck, his left arm hanging out the window, palm smacking the door.
‘You coming in?’ Ben was on the cinder block steps leading into the shed.
It was bigger inside than I expected, but had a low ceiling with exposed beams, which Nick ducked under. He handed us each a shot glass. The bar looked like one my parents had in the basement when I was a kid. About six feet long, with a faux marble top and padded brown leather trim. I walked to the end of it and checked for brass nailheads. It was exactly the same as I remembered. I had fallen off one of its matching stools when I was six years old and needed stitches in my forehead.
‘You gonna drink or what?’ Nick sounded angry.
I downed the shot. It felt like I swallowed a fireball. ‘What is that? It burns.’ I swallowed again, rubbed my chest. ‘It still burns.’
‘It’s what you drink to celebrate. It’s Booker’s.’
Ben took his shot and put his arm around me.
‘Cara’s over there,’ Nick said. He gestured to the wall opposite the bar.
I turned around and saw the back of her blonde head leaning over a small cocktail table toward a woman I didn’t recognize. ‘Who’s that?’
‘It’s Sherry. She owns this place, with her husband Mike, behind the bar.’
Mike waved. He was wearing overalls and a blue bandana tied around his forehead. There were three or four other men at the bar I didn’t know.
‘Go talk to the girls, Darla,’ Nick said. ‘I’ll take care of Ben.’
Ben walked off with Nick. Sherry had dyed red hair and drawn-on eyebrows that each came to a point in the middle. There were red, yellow, and blue lights flashing over Sherry and Cara’s heads, and I watched as their faces changed color. The walls were painted black but poorly, with large rectangular patches lighter than the rest.
‘Dar-la,’ Cara sang as I approached.
‘Oh, the famous Darla,’ said Sherry. She kissed me on the lips.
Instinctively I pushed her away. ‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘That was…surprising.’
‘Sit down,’ Sherry said. She pulled another stool up to the table. I sat and fell a few inches further than I expected. Cara and Sherry’s knees were bent close to their chests, like mine. We were sitting on footstools.
‘Why didn’t Nick get you a drink?’ Cara said.
‘Oh, he gave me a shot already,’ I said.
‘You’re not much of a drinker, are you?’
‘What do you like to drink?’ Sherry asked me.
I remembered the libertine cocktails Julie and I drank all through our summer abroad in Paris. The bartender told us it was a girly drink but we didn’t care.
‘Not much,’ I said. ‘I’m fine. I think I’ve had enough.’
The women laughed. ‘You might wanna have another. You seem a little uptight,’ Sherry said, unfriendly.
The juke box started with something familiar. Electric guitar and then drums. Sherry jumped up. In the corner there was a pallet, no bigger than five feet wide.
Then I recognized the song. You Shook Me All Night Long. There was a pole in the middle of the pallet and I felt myself tense. Sherry hung from it with her right arm and spun around, like a child at a playground.
‘Get the other lights!’ she yelled to Mike. The room went dark except for the flashing colored lights.
The men gathered around. Under her red shirt, Sherry was wearing a black lace bra with a pink bow in the center. She swung the shirt on her finger and flung it over Ben’s head. Cara joined Nick in front of the stage. My elbow stuck to the table. Sherry shimmied out of her skirt. A black satin g-string was underneath. The button of her skirt left an imprint in the soft skin of her belly. She lowered herself into a squat. The g-string disappeared into folds of her hips.
I was alone, on the low stool, waiting for something.
Then Cara was on the pallet. The chorus came up. Cara faced Sherry and grinded up against her. Everyone yelled their approval. Cara undid Sherry’s bra. Sherry cupped her breasts and looked at Cara shyly, as if asking for an assessment.
‘Motorboat,’ yelled Nick.
Ben pulled up a stool behind me, resting his hands on the tops of my legs. He kissed my neck. The tap of his right foot vibrated into mine. When I looked up Cara was pulling off her t-shirt. She wasn’t wearing a bra. Sherry was behind her, swishing her hips, disappearing behind one shoulder and then another. I was in a dark shed on the side of a road.
Cara caught my eye.
‘Darla, get your fine ass up here.’
I didn’t know anyone in Paris.
‘You think you’re too good for us?’ Sherry had stopped dancing. Her breasts hung limply.
I stood up.
Monica Cardenas recently completed her PhD in Creative Writing under Eley Williams, and her work has been published by Litro and Catatonic Daughters. Monica is originally from Washington, D.C., and now lives in London with her partner and rescue Shiba Inu, Dojo. Monica is on Twitter @cardenasm, and Instagram @monica_is_reading. Her book blog and publications are online at monicacardenas.com.