Here are some things I've learned about bars:
I am the bartender's and owner's best friend. Because of me, men will
order one more. And then one more. They will switch to beer from iced tea.
They will buy me a drink because they like looking at me and talking to me
and they want me to stick around. They are mostly married or going through
painful and protracted divorces, or have just emerged from painful and
protracted divorces, but that doesn't matter. I'm not here to find a
boyfriend or a husband.
I already have one of each.
The first 15 minutes are the hardest. I'm nervous, self-conscious, even
a little queasy. I try to look busy in a place where hoisting a beer and
laughing is my job. I feel ridiculous watching TV, because it's tuned to
ESPN2 and grotesque musclemen are benching automobiles or death wish
morons are hurtling around a track at ludicrous speeds and I couldn't care
But then something happens. I talk with the bartender Delilah about the
tattoo she wants, right here, on the small of her back. When she
leans away and arches her back to show me, her tits swell forward and I
feel every set of eyes fixed on the mirror above the bar. I feel a rush of
pleasure at the predictable nature of men.
I finish my first beer. I settle into my body.
It is as if I am chest-deep in warm, rippling water and I can't tell
where my skin ends and the water begins. I relax, I take off the
ubiquitous black sweater, I cross my legs and hike my long skirt, just a
little, so there is perfect balance between the curves of my calves and
arms and breasts, and the silk curtain of my nipped and flowing costume.
I always drink from the bottle. I am not a woman who requires a glass,
glasses are for wine, and no one drinks wine in a bar like this. To forgo
the bottle is to miss a chance to seduce, men love to see a woman's hands
wrapped around that cylinder, a red mouth opening in an O that is at once
self-sufficient and needy. Tip my head back and I might as well be on my
"Let me know what Delilah is wearing," Jack said this morning, at the
end of our time together. "Give me a report." He was walking down the
hallway to the door.
"Of course," I said, bearing his departure lightly, seeming to. I know
what he wants to know: skirt or pants, nipples or cleavage?
I leaned in a little, nuzzled the shoulder of his charcoal suit. He let
"Have fun this afternoon," he said. I stood at the door and watched him
go, not caring, for the moment, who might see me in my slip, my stockings,
flakes of black mascara under my eyes.
Here's something else: I always eat lunch. Lots of women starve
themselves in public (I'll have the fruit salad and a couple of melbas)
and gorge in private (A-ha! Now I've got you alone, you cheesecake,
you!) but not me. When a guy sees me polish off a big, fat burger, he
thinks 1) this woman doesn't have all those tedious hang-ups about her
body, 2) she eats like a guy, and 3) hmmmm, the girl likes meat. In
other words, he sees me for what I am: a woman of appetites. I will eat a
salad at home, but never out alone; I would rather grapple with a
half-pound of charred, crumbling meat, mealy tomato, mushy pickle; rather
dislodge the dry plug and shake the mustard hard (while my tits sway in
their thin cotton-Lycra sling); rather savor those grease-trap-fragranced
fries, which are gnarled and brown and never lay next to a potato, than
submit to the indignity of ordering salad.
Besides--and this leads me to another thing I've learned about
bars--the ones I like don't serve salad, or if they do, it's a half-assed
effort (a few desiccated carrot shavings and some limp strips of cheese on
straight-up iceberg). This is because men don't order salad. The best bars
are the ones where packs of lunching women do not venture. Not the suited
variety in their two-inch pumps, nor the stroller-laden, Keds-wearing
shopping bag moms, nor even the streak-blonde, sun-burned highway crew
chicks in workboots. No, it's just me and the waitresses. And they are
I make those hot female bartenders my friends. I compliment their
shoes, their skirts, their side-tit -showing tops. I inquire after their
boyfriends and look at the photos from their last, drunken trip to Cabo.
But above all, I tip them very, very well. I want them to be happy to see
me when I walk through that door, want them to call out "Hey, Janie, how
you doing, girl?" when I slide onto the stool. The smart ones know there
is a special allure to the woman on this side of the bar. I'm possible.
And the longer men stay, the more money the bartenders make.
I haven't always been able to do this. I didn't walk into a bar alone
until I hit forty--a year or two ago. By then, I knew the mistakes I'd
made and had an idea how to fix them. Some would say my afternoons at
Morrisey's are more escape than solution, and I can't say they don't have
I wasn't raised this way.
If hope is the province of the fool, then there is a special district
for those among us who believe a bar is a place of limitless
possibilities. I believed that even as a child, although my experience
with bars was then confined to Miss Kitty's on Gunsmoke and
the smell of cigarettes, perfume, and alcohol that clung to the cold cloth
of my mother's coat when my parents returned from their occasional
evenings out. I pressed my cheek against black gabardine and inhaled that
When other girls were playing teacher or nurse, I used to pretend that
I was a certain kind of woman. She had keys, to begin with, a ring of keys
that made music against her hip, and she knew what they were for. She fit
them into their holes matter-of-factly sometimes, sometimes with a sigh.
The keys and what they opened belonged to her.
She wore lipstick, this woman, dark lipstick, and she carried a
compact. To her, the application of makeup was as much complicated
pleasure as obligation. Her clothes knew her well. Not like a date someone
else had arranged from vital statistics and passing acquaintance, but like
a lover. I wouldn't have explained it that way then. I was only nine or
ten; I would have shrugged and blushed to have my fantasies exposed. But I
understood desire, inchoate as it may have been. I knew what I knew: that
the woman I dreamed of becoming wore her appetites.
Music played a part. I--she--swayed under the spotlight in my
parents' rathskellar (like Patti Page, maybe, or Peggy Lee) holding the
microphone, a wooden ice crusher, with one hand while with the other, she
smoothed fabric that didn't need to be smoothed. Then, after her set, she
let the guy at the bar pour her a drink, tell her a joke before climbing
the stairs to her room where always, always a man waited. She sang, she
drank, she liked men, she had keys, and at the end of the evening-- make
no mistake about it--she was satisfied.
I'm sure I don't have to list the ways that dream has since been
discredited--the classes, pages, sermons, sessions spent unlearning what,
at ten, I knew I wanted. To deconstruct, not laugh, at the dirty joke; to
feel guilty every time I dragged a brush over a wafer of powder or plunged
my greedy finger into pots of color; to eschew the visible nipple, the
unsupported breast; to let certain words die, unsaid, on my tongue; to
ridicule men for being ruled by their cocks.
Ten years later, I sat in the Crescent Lounge, an off-campus bar in the
college town I would later find dispiriting but which just then felt
thrillingly adult, and I turned to my well-meaning boyfriend of the moment
and said "Don't you ever wish you could just disappear for a year, take on
a whole new identity?" He considered for a moment (which is why I liked
him) then said "Not really, why?"
The horses on the beer lights spun round and I watched my bare arm turn
yellow, then red, then blue, and though I knew the answer--in fact, wanted
to grab his hand and tell him in a feverish voice, So I could be as bad
as I wanted and no one would ever know, I smiled as if it had been an
idle thought and changed the subject.
The first time I walked into Morrisey's alone, I was trembling.
Today, I come in and the place is packed. Delilah is working and the
new girl, Jenny. There isn't a single seat at the bar, a state of affairs
that used to throw me, until I realized how much I like standing in front
of a roomful of men. I slip off my coat and feel thirty pairs of eyes on
me--some sideways, some openly staring. My top is low-cut, my heels
" Jane," the man standing beside me says. I can feel his arm against
mine, shoulder to elbow, and I turn expecting a familiar face.
Which I see, only this one's from another world.
"Jesus," I say.
"Not Jesus, no….."
It has occurred to me that I might one day run into someone I know--my
dentist, say, or a pancake breakfast father--someone from my other, my
regular life, but I try not to dwell on it. "Vasily," I say. My husband's
sister's husband. "Vasily. What are you doing here?"
"I am doing what you are doing," he says.
"I'm meeting a girlfriend for lunch," I lie. I glance at my watch.
"A girlfriend?" he says and laughs. "A girlfriend? I think you are not
meeting anyone." He gestures at my clothing. "Not girl, at least."
"Yes, I am," I insist. I feel myself blushing.
He smiles a world-weary smile, then reaches out to halt Delilah who is
passing by with a tray of beef tips and noodles. "Delilah, you will let us
know when her friend arrives?"
She looks puzzled. "Oh, Jane, I didn't realize you were meeting anybody
today." He looks at me, I look at her, and she gets it. "Oh, shit. I
goofed, huh…. Sorry, guess I had a blonde moment. So, you two know each
"Relative by marriage," Vasily says. "No blood. No blood." His hand
lingers on her bare arm, his eyes on the valley between her tanned and
Sometimes I imagine my father here. I turn his wedding ring around and
around my right ring finger with the thumb of that hand as I scan the bar,
then the tables.
I wonder if Morrisey's is the kind of place he haunted thirty years
ago, he and his steel mill buddies nursing their own daytime crushes. But
I don't remember him drunk. I don't remember him drinking. Home at 5:30
every day, bringing his mood with him, his cinder-colored work clothes
knotted and pitched down the stairs to the laundry. Fresh from the locker
room showers, he nevertheless washed and washed his hands, the white
lather climbing his hairy forearms.
Maybe that cloud he brought with him was because he didn't want to come
home, didn't want to relinquish the last bottle warming in his grip, its
loosening label; didn't want to leave the loud, smoky world of men and the
women who moved through it getting the joke, their seductiveness equal
parts pleasure and commerce. A simple world, or maybe just a world made
You sign on when you walk through that door, or you don't. You can spot
the ones who don't; they sit, uneasy, one hand teasing a sweating water,
the other drumming on their cellphones: deliver me from the hell of not
belonging. They don't tip much, either: I've seen them put a dollar
bill down on a ten-dollar tab after asking for an extra wedge of lemon. In
and out they go--the lunch special, perhaps wisely, left untouched.
But the rest of us, the home team, our faces relax into stupidity the
moment we push the door open and the bar comes into view. There's a scene
in every romantic New York movie, the couple sitting or strolling by the
water, that bridge strung up behind with holiday-strength wattage, and the
buildings blinking benevolently: Bless you, they seem to say,
now go forth and be happy.
In here, the bottles behind the bar are our skyline, squat or tall and
thin, cylindrical or square or round, the colors shining like some urban
good life I could enter and inhabit. I could! And the bartender is the
doorman! And this five is my rent! Another half-hour living in a beautiful
I listen for him, even as I carry on a conversation with the two union
painters sidelined by a contract dispute or the commercial insurance
broker out of a job or the industrial equipment salesman who is trying
hard to explain just what he sells and who he is. My father was the kind
of man who said only what needed to be said, respected by men and
mysterious, hence attractive, to women. Silence always is, at least to
some of us --the kind who divine, in a man's silence, a wound that only
she can dress and heal with the balm of sex, the upturned, hopeful face,
the hand on his retreating jacket.
"You've been here before," I say to Vasily when two seats at the bar
open up, prime real estate in front of the sink. "Do you like Delilah?" I
know even as I ask that it's a ridiculous question.
"Delilah, who could not like Delilah?" He shrugs. "She is so sweet.
So…." And he gestures with his hands the way hundreds of men before him
have gestured with their hands to describe the sweet Delilah.
As if on cue, Delilah sets a bottle of Jaegermeister down on the bar in
front of us "Come on, guys, do a shot with me," she says, dealing the
glasses. She is trying to make amends for her earlier, uncharacteristic
denseness. Shots are never a good idea. I know this. I should have the
words printed up on a card, laminate it, stick it in my purse.
Nevertheless, we throw them back together. The glasses make a satisfying
sound on the bar, after.
I have never been able to turn down what is offered.
"You know," I say, once Delilah has moved on, "I'm not surprised by
this. I always suspected you of having a secret life." I am kidding,
barely. "I mean, how could you not?"
"Yes? What do you mean?"
"Sylvia," I say.
"Ah. Well, yes. There is that."
I laugh, but without real humor. My sister-in-law is the kind of woman
I hate most in the world. A blockish, matronly woman, pious and gravid
with judgment, yet she moves about the kitchen with surprising quickness.
She is very, very certain about everything: the amount of time to cook a
roast, the benefits of spanking children, how to spend her parents' money.
She is the sort who thinks it charming to roll her eyes and complain that
husbands--that all men--are nothing more than little
I agree, partly, but what of it? I could counter that men have little
choice given that wives--that all women--are really mothers. Mothers of
the towering, disapproving variety.
She and her mother lunch together twice a week, where they weigh and
render every household decision. And Vasily, good immigrant that he is,
shrugs as if to say how can I fight them? What can I do? as he
retreats into his well-appointed home office where he does who knows what.
"No offense, but I often wonder how you can stand it," I say.
He sighs and takes my hand in what I think of as his flamboyant,
Russian way. "I go under, always under the radar. There are men like this.
There are people like this. I think you know it, too. You know this, don't
you, Jane? I see you know what I mean."
I am thinking about the stories he slips to me at family
gatherings--just sketches, really, a few deft lines suggestive of so much
more. This girl I met in Prague after I got the hell out of Russia….
That time in Paris…in Israel…..in New York…
"Yes, I know what you mean."
But he is busy staring at Jenny who is bent forward, two feet away,
washing glasses. I watch, too. Conversation stops around us as we all
watch, paying homage to youth and tits and the calculated gesture.
"My god, but I love this country!" he says, putting a hand on my back.
"My god, but I love this bar," I say, and he laughs and lets go,
shifting his knees away from mine. It is then I see the woman standing in
the doorway. She is slight, maybe five foot two, even in her black,
high-heeled boots, and there is a ruff of rabbit fur at her neck. She
looks as if she is cold, her hands stuffed into the pockets of her coat,
the fur probably tickling her delicate nose. She catches his eye, one
eyebrow goes up, and then she turns around and walks outside.
"Well, this has been delightful, Jane."
"Truly," I say. He sighs deeply, mentions business appointments. He is
specifically vague. I wonder if she is outside stamping her feet. Or is
she sitting in his car, the heater blowing?
"I meant to ask how your mother is doing," he says, as he's pulling on
his coat. "What, a year ago already, two? He was how old?"
"She's fine. Two years, December. He was seventy-three."
"Not a good or a bad age. It is always too soon. It is always too soon,
isn't it? Always too soon."
At the door, he looks back at me, brings one finger to his lips. "Shhhhhh,"
he says. He smiles. I do the same.
I need to hear Jack's voice then. Badly. But it is too loud at the bar.
Novices stare at the expanse of floor between bar and john as if it's a
runway. It is. Even now, I take a few deep breaths before I stand and
steady myself for that walk. A woman moving through a roomful of men at
tables will draw attention as if a fire alarm has just been tripped. What
is it, some sort of sexual tremor? Or just the vibration of high heels
tap-tapping the floor? All I know is, they're on me and I stride
straight and seemingly oblivious (though aware of every step, the rise and
fall of breasts, the sideways swing of hips, the wave and shimmer of my
skirt brushing their trousered legs).
And when I'm closeted in that synthetic-raspberry-scented room, once
I've peed and reapplied and adjusted my several garment systems, I dial
him up. "Hi," he says, forgoing his usual corporate greeting because he
knows--thumping bass and filtered crowd sounds--that it's me. "Having a
good time? How's the scenery?" I tell him. I tell him about Delilah's
skin-tight, metallic dress, Jenny's pink rib-knit baby tee. About Vasily
and the shots and the steel-haired attorney who keeps looking my way.
"Such a slut," he teases. His voice is warm. "My slut." I melt inside
the certainty of being his.
When I return, the attorney has taken the vacated seat next to mine. He
is drinking Seven and Sevens and he is serious about it, head down, hand
curled around his glass.
I arrange myself on the barstool, pick up my beer.
"Delilah," he says. "Your new girl pours a lousy drink." He says "girl"
"She's new, Bill. Give her time. Jane, do you know Bill?"
"I think we talked once," I say. "You're a lawyer, right?"
"An attorney, yes."
"I was pre-law," I say. "A hundred years ago"--my standard,
"I'm sure," he says in a tone that demonstrates his belief in the
"And where was that, darling, Matchbook University?"
I feel, suddenly, as if my head could explode. "You think because I'm
having a beer in the middle of the day that I'm some sort of moron?"
"If that's what you want to believe." He is amused. I'm amusing him.
"What is it that offends you, my top?" I glance down at my tits, snug
and happy to be there. "You think I'm a slut? Well, how very discerning of
you. That's exactly what I am."
What I am, as a rule, is pleasant; it is one of my vanities to be
pleasant, to be the afternoon vacation, the break in the workday, the
entertainment. I'm relentlessly, fiercely pleasant. Then along comes
this arrogant prick, with his old white male assumptions! I shut him out,
planning to finish my beer and leave.
But somewhere between one lift and tip and swallow and the next,
something weird happens. A thought forms from the dregs of other thoughts,
changes before I can get hold of it, like the strange, alchemical
transformation of alcohol into blood, love into betrayal, years into a
life. Because now all I can think about is how it would feel to call
Jack's wife--home arranging flowers or some damn thing--and hang up, call
and hang up again and again, just to feel I have an effect, however
inconsequential, on his life in that house. A bell ringing on the other
side of the world. A bell I made ring.
On the other hand, there's so much to say. "Hi, this is Jane. Your
husband's slut." Just for starters.
Oh, boy. Now it is really time to go. It is really, really time.
Outside, the silence is, at once, all I wanted and a void. I am hoping
that the cold will give me my bearings. Behind me, the muffled 80s rock,
the men lighting, stoking, tending their individual fires.
The world is a block of ice; the broken asphalt, treacherous even when
dry, is glazed. I stick my hand out to steady myself against somebody's
burgundy Tahoe, somebody's silver Sebring, somebody's new model red Impala
as I make my way to my car. The utility pole in front of my parking space
is sheathed and nearly opaque.
Inside my car, the seat is stiff with cold, it makes a sound as if it
could crack beneath my weight. In the enclosed space, I can smell my hair.
It stinks of cigarette smoke and steamed onion and my own played perfume.
As I stow my purse, I catch a glimpse of myself in the rearview mirror. I
look--I can see it now--exhausted.
And then I hear it, at long last, what I seem, always, to be listening
for--my father's voice. A familiar line, so I know it's really him, I have
no doubt, no doubt at all: Who the hell do you think you are?
My father, that bastard, only says what needs to be said.
I pick up my cell phone and punch the number in.
Okay, then. Here is one last lesson:
When you find yourself watching the woman in the bar who is you, when
you find yourself wondering what she will do, when the afternoon begins to
look like Act III, walk out of the movie. Stand up, walk up that garishly
carpeted aisle, go out into the pearl-colored air, the traffic. Don't stay
to see what happens, sister, go home, take three aspirin, and sleep.
Connie Corzilius has degrees from the University of Illinois and the
Writers' Workshop of the University of Iowa, and her work has appeared in
Calyx and Willow Review. She lives in St. Louis, where she
--like everyone else in the known universe--is writing a novel.