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Connie Corzilius

Slut Wisdom


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 less.

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 knees.

"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 me.

"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 hot.

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 a point.

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 secondhand glamour.

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 perilously high.

" 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 other?"

"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 perfumed breasts.

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 simple.

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 bottle.

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 boys.

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… 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" like "cunt."

"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, self-deprecating chaser.

"I'm sure," he says in a tone that demonstrates his belief in the opposite.

"I was."

"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.

for IYL

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.

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