She sat at the bar in her painted-on black and white animal print top, a “Reserved” card before her and a glass of red wine parked within reach. Her petite body curved in concert with the animal print, revealing enough but not too much cleavage and a swath of smooth back, tucking in at the waist and flaring out again over the swell of neat hips. A black skirt hugged there, and below it a pair of buckled black boots. Her arms spoke of hours well-spent in the gym; a tattoo peeked below the left shoulder strap.
We watched her with interest, guessing, as writers do, at the story we expected to unfold: She would go home that night with a drink-benumbed stranger. She had been here before, so often she had her own little corner and own little placard and the bartender didn’t have to ask what she wanted.
It was early, too early for the club to start thrumming with half-tipsy couples and single men on the prowl. The piano man began to warm up his set. Waitresses moved with ease through the crowd, affording us a view of both patrons and staff. An imperceptible sway told us the woman with painted-on animal print had imbibed already before she’d arrived. She leaned on the bar, attuned to the bartenders’ conversation as if she had some intimate knowledge of them. Their bodies, however, did not reciprocate her yearning. They joked about something. Laughter brayed from her throat and she pointed at them. They did not seem to notice. Her shoulders deflated, and she turned to the music.
My companion and I looked at each other, eyebrows arcing with interest. This woman did not fit the mold of a regular patron. There was nothing offensive about her appearance and just a slight awkwardness about her behavior, but she sat at the bar like a thorn in a bed of silken rose petals. The pianist found his groove, singing Sweet Caroline and other Seventies’ standards. Animal-print woman slid from her seat and began to gyrate. Her right arm rose as if holding a lighter in a darkened arena, and a bubble of solitude bloomed all around her. The effect she produced worked the opposite of what she so clearly wanted. Everything she did telegraphed desire for intimacy. Everything she did clung within this tangible, trembling, impervious bubble.
And inside that bubble lay piles upon piles of invisible baggage. It might have been children, or uncaring men, or a life of disappointment and unspeakable sorrow. Over that baggage she had painted a coating of animal print, lipstick, tattoo, and sparkling boot buckles. She danced by the bar to wrestle that baggage back into place, and she spoke to the staff in an effort to seem as though she belonged.
But in the span of two hours no one had fallen under her spell. The staff acknowledged her, but only in passing. The couples were far too absorbed in each other. A single, red-sweatered man swept the room with his eyes, even as she danced within fingertip’s reach. To our disappointment, my companion and I had to leave at this moment; listening to music and watching her dance would have entertained us for another two or three hours. The club had only just hit its stride, and surely by midnight she would net an indifferent yet interested mate.
We had watched this woman like vicarious vultures, weaving a story to match her behavior. Perhaps someone else watched us in return. What story did they invent as we sat sipping drinks at our corner two-top? We might have been anything from lovers to old friends, or possibly sisters. What message could they read in our facial expressions and the tilt of our bodies? Were we comfortable or uneasy? Trolling for lovers, or merely out to enjoy music? Unless they were writers, our presence must have registered fleetingly at best. One minute we were there, the next we had gone, while the animal-print woman would stay until somebody offered to escort her home to her flat. Or perhaps no one would offer, and instead she would sleep late in a half empty bed before working out, showering, and primping for another night at the bar. Another night seeking love in all the wrong places. Another night pretending she knew how to fit in. Another night exuding piles upon piles of invisible baggage.
Watch and be watched—that primal activity. Observance springs from an instinctual core, a Darwinian talent that determines survival. Humans invariably add judgment to what we observe. We extrapolate unknowable narrative from details, not only for the purpose of navigating this world but to assuage our need to feel superior to others. Writers bear the burden of striking a balance, of making assumptions without passing judgment. We gather details about the human condition and draw connections through which we may edify our readers.
And so, ensconced our little dark corner, we watch the animal-print women and red-sweatered men. We wince in unison when the pianist can’t quite hit the high notes. Drinks flow from steel shakers as waitresses weave their way through the crowd, and that tall man in the black shirt, white jacket, and slick hair runs his gaze all around. Perhaps we registered in his narrative, too. Perhaps we did not even merit a thought. Regardless, the tall man, pianist, and animal-print woman caught two writers’ attention and left this impression. Oblivious to our passage, they will live on forever.
For more of Colleen’s letters, click here!
very good, Colleen 😀