I didn’t make any plans past 19. Not in a sad way, but in stupid-movie way. I thought surely by then I was going to be a rockstar or a rich business tycoon, and an agent or partner was going to red carpet me into the future. They’d sign the papers, I’d make the masterpieces. Everything works out and I wouldn’t worry about a thing.
But it turns out the future is just going to work and then the grocery store and getting your heart broken over and over until…
Until what? Someone comes along who is also tired of dreaming and is willing to deal with the same amount of shit you are? Like sure come here and screw up my plans and wreck my Tupperware drawer and love me and make me need a shed you’re not allowed in because you don’t know where the shovels fit correctly.
I mean I remember one summer night I was spending with my cousins, we were just outside at the fire pit talking about bad teachers and other high school stuff that didn’t matter. And we start to hear all this shouting coming from inside. We couldn’t imagine what the adults could be arguing about. It was so noisy, the pitches piping up and down with Aunt Becca’s screech and Uncle Leo’s bellowing reply. Had someone cheated or something? A few minutes later, Uncle Leo came outside with us, with a big sigh, pops open a beer and take a quick swig.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Ah, Neal, I got a good word-walloping.”
“What’d you do?”
“…I uh, I put the nice blue plates with the casual white plates. Made the stacks all slant, they coulda fallen apparently.”
It not being my parents that had just raised hell over some dishes, it was easier for me to ask the obvious question- “So?”
This was apparently the most hilarious thing Uncle Leo had heard in his life, because he started to chortle, and that turned into a laughed that lasted until he coughed before finally answering me.
“Oh buddy, I hope you understand one day. I hope you get the blessin’ of being stuck with someone long enough that one day you stack that plates wrong and it sets her right off.”
All we kids just kinda looked at each other. And then he went back inside, and there wasn’t any yelling. In fact, the next time I saw Aunt Becca and Uncle Leo, I remember thinking they were being pretty gooey and gross.
I don’t know if I really want anything anyway though because sharing the bed again sounds awful but sharing a spot on the couch sounds real nice and I just want someone I can hold without worrying where my arm should go. But none of that comes without the first several weeks of small talk nonsense that drives me nuts. And the kinda people who don’t wanna do the small talk don’t wanna do the big talk so it’s not like you can skip any of-
“Yeeeees?” Neal knew he was in trouble, and not just for drifting off. Caroline only said his name like that, as if it was painful forcing it through her gritted teeth, when she was truly on fire. And he knew her scale- drifting off only got a shoulder tap or a cherry aimed at his forehead. So this was gonna be good.
He stretched out his most innocent smile as she walked away from her customers to speak to him.
“Why do you insist on putting the highballs on the top shelf?!”
Neal bit his lip to stifle a laugh. He’d known earlier when he’d gotten out the new glass shipment that he was going to cause her to fuss.
“Well, sweet Caroline, they’re highballs. I figure they should go on a high shelf.”
This only fanned the flame in her eyes, which Neal found incredibly amusing. His angery manager then pulled herself up to every inch of her small frame against his much taller one. And though he stood almost a foot above her, she still managed to be quite imposing.
“You will pull down those damn glasses to where I can reach them, and then you will wipe every damn one-”
“Well I already-”
“Every damn one, and after shift you and I will be on glass duty together to refresh ourselves instead of leaving it to the busboys, MMKAY?”
“Alright, alright,” Throwing his hands up in defeat, Neal waited until she turned back to her customers to let the little laugh out. Even knowing the consequence, Neal wasn’t too upset. He’d still gotten a funny rise out of her! And she’d calm down by the end of the night; she might even be fun and tell some of her stories and drink tricks while they did dish duty tonight.
So he hummed as he took a tray over to the high shelf for his highballs.
“You know, you could just tell her.”
“What’s that?” Neal looked up from his new stack of glasses to meet the eyes of one of his regulars, Mr. Silent Martini.
Or, Neal supposed, Mr. Usually-Silent Martini.
“Ah, never mind. What’s the special tonight?”
“Bikini Martini, sir, splash of coconut rum and grenadine. Feelin’ up for it?”
The dark dressed man smirked a bit, pushed his shades up into his buzz cut as per usual, “Will it have polka dots?”
Neal laughed, not the fake one he usually gave for a bad joke and a good tip, but a real one because it was so unexpected from this guy. Neal cut his eyes down the bar for Caroline’s reaction, but she was too far out of earshot to see this monumental change in their stoic martini man.
“Sadly no, sir, but she’s still pretty with a few layers.”
“Pour her up for me then, Sir Neal.”
Neal nodded and grabbed a shaker. He decided to capitalize on the unusual conversation.
“So you haven’t been here in a while, we’ve missed you at happy hour. Work kept you busy?”
Another might have missed it, but Neal’s trained bartender eye saw the twitch in Mr. Martini’s jaw at the question. So work had been the wrong angle. He knew Caroline would not have made that mistake right off the bat. She had a way of feeling out what was off limits with customers. It’s why all the coolest peculiars were her regulars. It was part of the reason he always asked to train with her, he wanted that smooth back and forth too.
The man finally offered a quiet “…you could say that.” But the dark eyes of the near stranger didn’t give away anything else.
“It was still winter last time we saw you I think,” Neal tried again, pouring the first layer of the martini, “you more of a cold weather guy?”
Mr. Martini stayed quiet that time. Neal pressed his lips together, knowing he’d been beat. He slowly poured grenadine over a spoon into the glass to create the second layer, pressed a slice of pineapple around the rim, and lightly floated a cherry on top. Cursing himself for missing a good conversation, he slid the martini across the marble bar. But in the last second he thought what would Caroline say?
“There ya go, one Bikini Martini, no teeny weeny, hold the dots. Enjoy, sir.” And with an unexpectant smile, he went back to wiping his glasses, to wait.
That’s what Caroline always said: People want to talk. That’s really what we’re here for, to listen, but you gotta wait. No one wants to be rushed into their story. Everyone wants an audience, everyone wants the lights down, the curtain call, and then…
“I never know how long my travels will keep me.”
Neal tried not to drop the highball in his hand from excitement, “Oh yeah?”
“Yep. Winters are quieter, I get local business. But things sometimes pick up in the summer, gotta go here and there. I like to drop in though to my usual places, see if all is still as it’s been.”
“See if the local bartender still remembers your drink?” Neal winked, and got just the slightest smile in return.
They worked quietly for a bit, Neal on refilling spiked teas for early birds of Book Club and Mr. Martini on his drink. But now it was a comfortable quiet, as if they were moving in tandem, on the same team while the world moved on a different plane.
After several more sips than usual, Mr. Martini spoke again. “I meant what I said earlier.”
Neal paused shaking a Blue Lagoon for John’s flavor of the week, “Hm? About traveling?”
“No, about Caroline.”
Had they spoken about Caroline? Neal thought back. Had he expressed out loud wanting to bartend like her? Had he told this guy about-? Surely not. Neal had not drank on the job since he was in college, he must just be losing his mind.
“I’m sorry sir, what about Caroline? You need her for something?” He looked up at the man, concerned for a second that something was wrong with the service and caught his gaze. Neal realized he hadn’t really held eye contact with Mr. Martini before. He couldn’t decide the color, but he was shocked there were so few wrinkles around them.
“No no,” The man pulled his shades down and began rummaging through his pockets, “you could just tell her.”
“..tell her what?”
“That you’re crazy about her. I know, I know-” the man put a hand up to stop the sound trying to leave Neal’s mouth, “you don’t know it yet. Or maybe you aren’t yet. But you do, or will be, or whatever. So when you are, or notice, you could just tell her. Then you wouldn’t be waiting around for someone to fight about plates with. You all already fight about the glassware.”
Neal stood stiff, carved into place as the stranger signed his receipt and placed several silver coins on the marble before nodding and calmly walking away. Neal’s eyes were the only part of him that could bare to move as he followed the man’s steps out the door.
“Ooooh what’d he leave us this time?”
Neal’s statue state shattered at the sound of Caroline’s voice in his ear and he dropped the shaker into the sink.
“Oh shit, sorry Neal, what was that? I’ll make it real quick.”
John’s date interrupted “It was my Blue Lagoon, honey, don’t worry I’m in no rush, right sugar?” The blond (this time) rubbed up against a bored looking John, “What are these, anyhow? They look Japanese, I’m part on my mother’s side, do you exchange?”
“No uh no, he just, um,” Neal tried to collect both himself and the coins as Caroline smoothly remade the drink and straightened up his mess, comfortable in his space. She moved around him quickly and close enough that he could smell she’d chosen a spicy, floral perfume tonight. Lavender, maybe? Normally he just pleasantly noticed. Right now it was suffocating him. …but he liked it?
“He’s a regular, so it’s alright,” Caroline cooed, placing the drink down and sliding it across the marble. Neal saw her nails were done in a peachy pink tonight, she must be feeling better. When she’s all moody she makes a point of using dark nail polish and she’d been in a glittery black for weeks.
…how had he not known that he knew all these things about her?
“Neal,” she turned away from the customers, placing a hand on his arm as she did when she wanted to speak just to him. He wasn’t sure he could take that right now.
“Yep? Yeah, hm?”
“Why don’t you take a five? You look a bit shaky, and I need you on it for the rush. Plus if I saw correctly Mr. Silent actually talked so I’ll buy pizza for our glass cleaning session if you tell me what he said!” When he nodded, her smile brightened and it made something move in his chest, so he quickly escaped to the fresh air.
And when he got to the street and was able to breathe again, he wondered if Caroline stepped in to cheer up her employee or her friend or the cute guy she worked with, and for the first time it mattered and it was all that damn martini man’s fault.
Wrangle (noun): A dispute or argument, typically one that is long and complicated.
(verb): 1. Have a long and complicated dispute. 2. Round up, herd, or take charge of.
OH my goodness! We’re back in touch with a few more of The Swan crew! Personally, I’ve missed Neal, so it was fun to work with him again.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock (and really, even a lot of rocks have been disturbed, hang in there Minnesota, and South Carolina… and all of Australia…) then I’m sure you’ve been wrangle (yep, all 3 definitions) yourself quite a few times the past couple weeks. I’ve also been it’s rhyme tangle, and I’m getting back into this blog to try to UNtangle.
Here, Neal’s got two arguments going- one with himself about what he wants, and one with Caroline about where the glasses go*. I’ll just be honest- I’m having this argument too. No, not the glasses, the do-you-look-for-somebody-or-not one. I like my space, and I like not asking anyone else how things work. But I get you, Neal, I too would occasionally like to argue with someone about what movie to watch. I think we all have one of those arguments going on in our heads all time. Think about what yours is. What’s your “do I even want this?” inner fight?
Neal gets an easy out with this internal wrangling- a mysterious stranger comes around and deals out another card before Neal can even say “hit me.” We don’t all get that, but we can hope for it, we can put ourselves in those places, open ourselves to it. However stay aware- because just like Neal, that doesn’t always solve the problem. It may clarify what you want, but it might also open up a whole new can of worms you didn’t even know was in the cabinet.
Here’s hoping though, reader. Good luck with whatever wrangling and untangling you’re doing, and watch out for strangers in dark shades ordering martinis 😉
*shout out to my fellow shorties, may there always be a step-stool nearby
Anyone sound familiar? If you need a refresher, these characters can be found in Today I am Apricate, Today I am Reconcile, Today I am Effervescent, Today I am Alveolate, and many more!