with illustrations by Grant Reynolds
It’s 5:30 in the morning, which is the beginning of the day for the professionals of the city, but in Bar World we’re just winding down. It’s my first night of work in a city where last call doesn’t happen until just before sunrise, and I’m blinking away sleep while I flatten out the bills from my apron. The security guy switches off the neon sign, the barback whistles while he restocks the coolers, and the bartender, who’s also my manager, he stands on one side of the bar while I sit on the other. He watches me with a smirk.
“First shift,” he says. “How do you feel?”
I tell him that I’m fine, thank you very much, but he pushes me a little bit, he asks, “Only fine?”
“Okay,” I say, “I’m better than fine. I’m elated. I’m thrilled, Evan; I’m goddamn ecstatic.”
Evan Felix smiles. “That’s more like it,” he says. He puts the register drawer down on the bar and takes the seat closest to me. He lights a cigarette while he counts the money, even though one of the owners mentioned to me last week that smoking in the bar after hours is strictly prohibited.
The owners: they’re in charge of this and a handful of other bars in the city. I get the impression that their presence around here is a rarity, that much like this country, this bar is run by a few old white men who are rarely around to see how things actually work. Below them is the general manager, then the assistant manager, then the shift manager: it’s a whole ladder of power, and as a cocktail waitress I’m a good three feet below the bottom rung.
But I was lucky to get this job at all without any connections in the city, and I was lucky again to inherit a late shift under the reign of the hot manager. Evan Felix is the one I was told to turn to with any questions or concerns, and the one I’m supposed to give my cash and receipts to when I finish my closeout, which, at this point, might take a while: right now it’s easier to add up the number of shots I took during my shift than to calculate my drop. I guess that my confusion is apparent in my body language, and I guess that Evan Felix is looking at my body, because suddenly he leans in towards me and he whispers, “Are you gonna cry?”
I laugh and shake my head.
“Not a crier, huh?” he asks. “Good. Because see, when I was a junior in high school, the first girl that I dated had an overbearing Catholic mother who taught her to be ashamed of everything. We were sixteen, and we would do all of the things that sixteen-year-olds do, and she would get off on defying her mother. But then, a month or two into our relationship, her mom died. Just dropped dead.”
I raise my eyebrows, and he nods.
“Heart attack,” Evan Felix says. “After that, my girlfriend was convinced that her mom was waiting to punish her from heaven, and every time we had sex she would cry. So I guess what I’m saying is that I’m glad you’re not a crier, because if you started crying right now, it might turn me on.”
He goes back to his counting and I try to imagine an alternate universe in which I’m witty enough at 5:30 in the morning to come up with the right response to this.
A minute later he asks me if I’m done, and I nod. I put the stack of receipts and bills into a check presenter and slide it towards him. He watches me do this with a concentrated interest, and he puts his hand next to mine. He puts it close. Like, as close as it could possibly be without touching. I think that I can maybe sense his pulse, that’s how close it is.
I laugh and nod towards the check presenter. “Well,” I say, “do you want it?”
“You have no idea how badly I want it,” he says.
I move my hand just a little bit closer, just a fraction of an inch, and I feel an arc of electricity at the point of contact. I know what he’s doing just like I know I shouldn’t reciprocate but before I can stop myself I ask, “What are you gonna do with it when you get it?”
Evan Felix smiles.
“It’s a bad idea,” my roommate tells me, and my knee-jerk reaction is to think: bitch, I was telling you a story, I wasn’t asking you for advice. Instead I just respond with “Oh yeah, I know.”
“How old is he?” she asks.
“I’m not sure,” I say. “Early forties, I think?”
Old enough to be your father. I can see the words in a flash behind her eyes, but she does me the decency of keeping them to herself. Instead she says, “Don’t fuck your boss.”
“I mean, he’s not really my boss-boss,” I say, “he’s just one of my bosses. There’s like, this ladder?”
“Don’t fuck any of your bosses,” my roommate says. “Do you remember how relieved you were when you finally got a job? It’s probably not worth risking losing it to have sex with some dude.”
“Some exceptionally hot dude!” I say.
“What’s your end game?” my roommate asks.
When I was in high school I had a big gay crush on my Social Studies teacher that never made it anywhere past the pages of a few spiral notebooks. Then in college it was my urban theory professor, and while I made a big deal out of being as dramatic about it as possible for the comedic benefit of my friends, he and I never once made any sort of contact: not a hug, not even a handshake. Two jobs ago my checks were signed by a devastatingly charming man who always played the lead character in my most illicit fantasies, but they stayed just that: fantasies. This time, though, things are going to play out a little bit differently. What sets Evan Felix apart from all of the preceding hot authority figures is his tongue, and the fact that it’s currently in my mouth.
It’s 4:30 a.m., which in Bar World is not even bedtime, and until this very moment none of my innocent infatuations have ever strayed into the realm of realization, but now, now I’m two weeks into my new job and I’m in the basement with my manager’s hand in my hair and his dick hard against my hip and now that it’s actually happening I have so many synapses firing at once that I’m afraid my entire brain might short circuit, I might burst into flames right here against Evan Felix in the basement of this bar.
I didn’t actually think anything would come of our flirtations. It was a surprise when he kissed me, and when he shoved me against a shelf of liquor bottles. It was a surprise when I felt his hand push its way up my shirt, and when he slapped me across the face and then slapped me again harder. It was a surprise when he wrapped his fingers around my throat and, wait:
I made some comment the other night at the end of a shift, when we were closing and we were drunk, all of us, the barbacks and the security guys and Evan and I, we were talking about sex and I said something about how I like being dominated but that was just a drunk conversation and did he think that I was giving him permission, because I didn’t tell him I wanted him to do this to me and I don’t know if I do want him to do this to me but I know that I don’t have time to make a decision one way or another because now he has my tights around my knees, now he has his fingers inside of me, now he’s flipping me around and as he suddenly switches his attention to my ass and tightens his grip on me I understand in an instant how much bigger than me he is and how easy it is for him to manipulate my body and I’m outside of myself now, I’m watching this happen from across the room, I’m a ragdoll pinned to the wall and I don’t want this at all and I tell him to stop. Then I say it again louder. I say, “Stop.”
“And then?” my roommate asks. “Did he?”
“Well,” I say. “It’s complicated.”
“Emma, no it’s not. Did he stop when you asked him to stop?”
“Well, after the fourth time I said it I sort of twisted away and shoved him off of me. Then he stopped.”
“That’s fucked up,” she says.
“It’s fine,” I say, “I handled it.”
I tell her what happened next: how I made it back upstairs just before the barback caught us together, how Evan had followed me outside and we had made out against the front door of the bar, how he’d asked me to come home with him, but I’d left alone. I try to leave out enough of the details to make it sound less like what it actually was and more like what I’d wanted it to be, but my roommate isn’t buying it. “I mean congratulations, I guess,” she says. “You had a semi-consensual hookup with someone you were really into! That’s great! It’s probably not great enough to risk your job over, but…”
I motion for her to go ahead with whatever it is that she’s clearly dying to say.
“I think that you’re misprocessing past trauma,” she says, and I immediately get a headache. “I think that you’re mistaking the adrenaline rush for arousal when it’s mostly based in fear.”
I suddenly find myself wishing that when I’d moved to this city I had found an apartment with a total stranger who didn’t know anything about my history.
“It’s fine,” I say. “I’m gonna handle it.”
It’s 3 p.m. the next day, which in Bar World is early morning, which is probably why Evan Felix doesn’t answer his phone. He calls me back an hour later, though, and before I can even say hello he launches into a story, and I almost forget that I had an itinerary for this call.
Then I remember.
“Wait,” I say. “Stop. I need to talk to you.”
I tell him that I don’t think it’s a good idea for us to hook up again, and he wants to know why. I start to blurt out a list of reasons, but he interrupts me before I can finish. “We’re just getting started,” he says.
Now it’s a month later, and it’s 9 p.m., which is the end of the day for the general public, but in Bar World it’s only the beginning, and when I step through the heavy front door I hear my favorite album playing through the speakers and Evan Felix notices my smile.
“You like this band?” he asks.
“This is, like, one of my all-time favorites,” I say, and even then it doesn’t occur to me that he already knows that, that that’s why he’s playing it.
“No way,” he says, “Mine too!”
He confides in me about his fucked up childhood and his struggles with bipolar disorder. He shows me his red flags, but not by waving them; instead he tenderly hands them to me for safekeeping, and I iron out their wrinkles and fold them neatly and keep them in a drawer like they’re love letters.
He lets me know that I’ve gotten under his skin. That he’s never felt this way before. That he was thinking of me when he woke up this morning.
He touches me every time he’s near me: just a graze of fingertips on the small of my back, a slight squeeze on my hip as he passes me in the crowd of customers on a Friday night. And this is not an appropriate way for a manager to treat his subordinate, but in Bar World we let these things slide. In Bar World these details get lost in the low light and the buzzing haze of alcohol.
And sometimes at the end of a shift there will be another moment when we’re alone and Evan Felix will grab me and kiss me, he’ll push his fingers into my mouth and he’ll tell me that this is our little secret and that no one else would understand. And maybe the next day when I’ve sobered up my roommate will make some comment about how clear-cut the situation looks from her perspective, she’ll say that the second your superior starts referring to your little secrets is the second that you should quit your job. “Take that shit straight to the guidance counselor,” she’ll say, and I’ll laugh, and I’ll see it for what it is for just a second maybe tomorrow but right now with his arms around me I won’t be able to decide if I want to run to it or from it and I’ll disassociate hard, I’ll shut my eyes and let my mind leave the bar and take me anywhere else, to any other time and any other place and—
There was this one day, about ten years ago, in my eleventh-grade social studies class.
It was the day of the homecoming game, and there was this palpable spark of excitement buzzing through the classroom when our teacher stormed in and slammed the door behind her. We stiffened in our seats: Ms. Casey was the cool teacher, no one had ever seen her angry before, but on that day she walked straight to her desk and said the last two words you ever want to hear a teacher say: POP TEST.
“Pull out a pen and paper,” she said. “I hope that everyone paid close attention to last night’s reading.”
And oh, the horror: not even a pop quiz, but a pop test! Panic spread through the classroom in a visible shudder. The consensus was clear in all of our expressions: we were totally fucked.
“Write your name at the top of the page,” she said, “and number to four.”
The questions were unreasonably specific, all of them requiring exact dates and precise locations, and even the straight-A students, even the suck-ups were at a total loss. This would knock my entire grade in the class down by a whole letter. My one shred of hope lay in the fact that Ms. Casey always graded every test and quiz on a curve. I crossed my fingers and closed my eyes and hoped and hoped and hoped because, you know, a test was a huge deal back then.
And if it’s my will that’s being tested right now then I should be just as worried, because it’s 2 a.m., which in Bar World is only early evening, and I’m having a hard time focusing on my job on account of the things that Evan Felix keeps whispering to me when no one else is in earshot. I walk up to the computer with an entire table’s worth of drink orders written down in my head, and then he says something about all of the different ways he wants to put his mouth on my body and suddenly my mind goes blank. As if his voice in my head wasn’t loud enough, I have it here, right here, in real time:
“I want you to sit on my face,” he says. “I want to suck on your toes. I want to lick your asshole, I want to taste your pussy.”
I laugh and ask him if he’s trying to, like, eat me or something. “Maybe you think that you’re horny, but you’re actually just hungry,” I say. “You should at least consider that possibility, because, I mean, that happens to me sometimes.”
“Come downstairs,” he says.
And I want to. I do. I want to go downstairs with him, and I want to go home with him, and I want to spend an entire night shaking in his arms just like I want to light this fucking bar on fire and get in my truck and drive straight out of the fucking city.
He says, “Emma.”
He says, “Please.”
He says, “I love you.”
Now it’s 8 a.m., which is breakfast time for nine-to-fivers and bedtime in Bar World, but sleep and food are the last two things on my mind. I’m pacing nervous circles around my kitchen while my roommate shakes her head and frowns into her coffee.
I’m imagining all of my organs in knots. My intestines and my vocal cords and my heartstrings all in one impossible snarl.
“What’s his end game?” my roommate asks. It startles me: I had forgotten that she was in the room.
“His end game,” she says. “What’s his agenda?”
Ms. Casey told the class that we had exactly two minutes to go over our answers, then she stepped into her office and let the door fall halfway shut behind her. The second she was out of sight, Sean got out of his seat.
We all watched in shock as Sean, the quarterback of the football team, one of the most popular kids in school, walked to the front of the classroom and picked up the binder that Ms. Casey had left open on her desk. He stared at the page for several seconds, then went back to his seat and picked up his pencil.
I couldn’t believe his audacity. He was cheating, right in front of everyone! Ms. Casey could have walked back into the room at any second and caught him, but by the time she reappeared his answers had already been adjusted.
“Pass your tests to the front,” Ms. Casey said, and everyone complied without saying a word. We were all sixteen or seventeen, and this little injustice we were being subjected to felt like such a huge deal. We were all outraged, but we were all silent, and now, now it’s ten years later and it’s one in the morning, but in Bar World it’s not even dinnertime, and I’m acutely aware that I should quit my job. But I don’t want to. It wasn’t easy to get this job, and I don’t want to have to start over.
I think, maybe I can comb this tangle out.
Evan Felix looks up from the computer when I walk into the basement, but I don’t sit in the empty seat next to him. I had my speech all planned out, but now it’s evaporated from my mind, and before I know it I’m stumbling into something that I should have said months ago.
I say, “Look, that one time? That first time that we sort of… hooked up? When I told you to stop you didn’t. You should have stopped.”
“I did stop,” he says.
“No,” I say, “not really. I had to pry you off of me.”
He says, “It seemed to me that you were enjoying yourself.”
“I was, at first. But then it was just scary. You’re a lot bigger than me, and you were being really rough, and I was really drunk, and you should have stopped when I told you to.”
He looks back at the screen, and it’s quiet for a long minute. Just the tapping of his fingers on the keyboard and the mumble of the customers overhead, then I say: “It was triggering for me, okay?”
He turns to look at me. “You’re going to have to explain,” he says.
So I explain.
“I didn’t know that happened to you,” he says. “Look, if I had known, I wouldn’t have been so—”
“You shouldn’t have assumed anything,” I say to him, and to myself I say don’t cry don’t cry for the love of god Emma don’t you dare cry. “Look, it happens to most of us, okay? It happens to most women, and if someone tells you to stop, you have to stop, okay? You have to stop immediately.”
Evan Felix asks me why I would let our little situation carry on for so long if I was actually scared, and I list all of the reasons in my head: Because I’m attracted to him even when I’m terrified of him. Because he’s spun me around in so many circles that I’m too disoriented to tell which way is up anymore, let alone figure out which direction to go in to get out of this relationship. Because every single play that he’s made for my sympathies has worked like a charm and now I feel like it might take an exorcist to get him out of my mind and my vagina.
But last week I met a girl at a party, and when I told her where I work she made a face. She told me how she’d thought he was hot, how she’d wanted to at first, but that when he shoved her against a wall and wrapped his fingers around her throat she’d changed her mind. She told me how he’d grabbed her tighter when she’d told him to stop, and how she’d had to punch him and run away. She told me that she won’t be going to my bar anytime soon, and then: “I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t know why I’m telling you all this. He’s your manager, right? Maybe he’s even your friend.”
“No,” I’d said. “He’s not my friend.”
Now I’m having a staring contest with him in the basement of the bar, and I’m telling him that this — us — whatever it is — it’s over.
And then it ends. No, it really does end right then, like magic, poof, it’s done. Evan Felix no longer touches me or texts me or even talks to me. He doesn’t talk to me at all. My manager is giving me the silent treatment. He only addresses me with criticisms, which he suddenly has an endless supply of. He voices them loudly. He makes fun of me in front of customers. He calls me a slut in front of my coworkers. He rolls his eyes now whenever I’m talking.
Through the grapevine of Bar World, I piece together the narratives of the girls that came before me.
And to think that ten years ago I thought that something as silly as cheating on a test was like, so unfair.
Ms. Casey graded the papers right away, then tallied up all of the marks and angrily informed us that everyone in the class had failed. Everyone except for Sean.
“You all have no excuse,” she said. “If Sean could get a perfect score, there’s no reason that everyone else couldn’t.”
Sure, any one of us could have told her what we all knew, but if Sean got caught cheating he would get suspended, which would mean that he wouldn’t be allowed to play in that night’s game, which would mean that the person who ratted him out would be exiled. No one would take the fall and jeopardize their own social standing for the greater good of the class.
Now it’s a decade later and it’s 10 a.m., which in Bar World is the dead of night, but I’m wide awake at my computer and I’m composing a resignation email. I’m staring at the keyboard and thinking about how I could attach screenshots of text messages or a detailed account of what happened in the basement that one night, but I know that the general manager would take Evan’s word over mine, just like I know that the men who run the bar from a mile away would prefer it if my story stays exactly where it is: three feet below the bottom rung. Making noise about it would affect my chances of getting another job, because in Bar World, everyone is connected, and every bar knows what’s going on at the others, and no one hires a whistleblower.
I keep the email plain and simple and free of any little secrets.
At my job interview the next day, the man who takes my resume pauses at the first entry. He tells me that he’s friends with the managers of my current bar.
“If I call them to ask about you,” he says, “will I hear that you’re a good worker?”
I smile. “Only the best,” I say.
Ms. Casey let the entire class simmer in Sean’s little feat of tyranny for about twenty minutes before she stood up from her desk and informed us that the whole scene had been staged. The test hadn’t been real, and our bad scores weren’t going to be factored into our grades. She’d pulled Sean out of his previous class and explained to him how she wanted him to cheat, and how she wanted him to make sure that everyone saw him cheat.
She said that she was sick of her students looking at the world’s long history of corrupt leaders and asking her why people would allow someone who was clearly hurting others to rise to a position of power. “I could spend all week explaining why,” she said, “but I thought you might understand it better if you experienced it yourselves. Now tell me: How come nobody told me what happened? How come nobody stood up for the class?”
It’s 7 p.m. and the sun is rising in Bar World and all that I have to do is make it through one more shift, then I never have to come back. The girl that they’ve hired to replace me is here tonight and I was told to train her. I show her how to use the computer and run a credit card transaction. I show her how to explain the drink list and do her closeout and at the end of the night I ask her if she has any questions.
She considers for a minute, then asks, “What’s your least favorite thing about working here?”
She’s twenty-two years old, and if she’s taking my shifts it means that one night a week she’ll be the only female working, the only female hanging out and drinking after the bar closes.
And this is my chance do Ms. Casey proud. I could tell this girl how Evan Felix treats women, and how he treated me. I could go straight home and email HR. I could raise my voice and tell everyone about the very last thing I want to tell anyone.
I could do it right now.
Any second now.
Emma Alamo is a writer, performer, and visual artist currently living in Chicago. You can find more of Emma’s writing at hotmesshouseguest.com and more of Grant’s illustrations at grantreynolds.tumblr.com.