Ronit (pronounced ro-neat) writes fiction and nonfiction and has written and performed her own work in Los Angeles where she was a member of...read more The Actors' Gang. She studies writing at the University of Washington and at Richard Hugo House in Seattle where she lives with her young family.
BY THE TIME I LEAVE FOR THE BUS to work the raised white bumps spelling out “Housatonic River” on the green highway sign are starting to reflect passing headlights. The poor river always looks so cold in February, rushing past with all its noise and splash. It still has PCBs in it from the GE plant that was here thirty years ago. So sad that a beautiful thing like that can’t actually be what it seems.
My dad and I used to go down and watch the river a lot when my mom first brought me here to live with him. She was supposed to come up to Pittsfield from Virginia tonight for my birthday weekend. Sweet sixteen, that’s me. She hasn’t visited since last summer. My stomach was nervous butterflies all week just thinking about it; I could hardly eat and the last two nights I didn’t sleep well. After school today, I practically ran home. I had almost finished straightening up the apartment for her when she called and cancelled. Work or something. I felt little prickles around my head when she told me. My throat went tight and I could barely speak, I had to move to the window for some air. Take care of yourself, she said before she hung up.
I stood there holding the phone, looking out from the third floor window. I stared at the naked trees reaching up for the sky with their scared veiny branches, I smelled chimney smoke from one of the houses down the street. My forehead was pressed against the icy glass when Botchnik’s called to see if I could fill in, they were down a server. I asked if Rob was working and they said yes he was.
That’s when I decided tonight is the night.
I am not going to spend my whole birthday weekend sitting around this dumb town thinking about how much better everything would be if Mom were here. It hurts too much. She can do whatever she wants, it doesn’t matter to me anymore. I’m going to make things better for myself.
Tonight I am going to ask Rob for a ride home and I’m going to kiss him. And when he kisses me back it will feel like we’re melting in the dark together. He’ll put his arms around me and press me to his chest and we’ll stay that way. He won’t want to let me go. Tonight everything will change.
The sun is almost gone by the time my bus comes. Dad likes me to sit near the bus driver, he’s been telling me that since I was ten, when Mom first dumped me up here. That first summer Dad let me paint my bedroom bright pink and he took me to a ton of garage sales. We walked to the diner every weekend and we talked about all kinds of stuff. We don’t anymore. Maybe it got hard for him to pretend all the time that everything was fine. That we both weren’t wishing my mom would change her mind and come back.
When I get on, the bus smells like heat and old bodies. I pass two crepe-y ladies on my way to the back. I can sit where I want, I am going to be sixteen tomorrow.
I still am not sure why Lori and me are allowed to serve liquor at Botchnik’s, I think everybody thinks we’re eighteen. Dad knows but doesn’t seem bothered by it, it’s only twice a month. He says I have a good head on my shoulders and twelve dollars an hour off the books is twelve dollars an hour I won’t need to ask him for. Lori is the one who got me the job, and Lori knows about the world. She and her boyfriend have done it. I asked her about it and she told me it’s like feeling pressure up inside, near your stomach. I can’t imagine it, I mean, she is sixteen and a half, but still. Lori gets to live with her mother and her mother smokes cigarettes and boils frozen Contadina ravioli and puts red sauce on it and Lori has her boyfriend over and they all eat dinner like a family.
Rob has a huge dinner every Sunday after church with his entire family. They all still live in Pittsfield and sometimes Rob makes the Sunday meal for everyone. He wants to go to school to be a chef, he’s only bartending to make money. He was fourteen when he cooked his first meal for everyone. It was going to be Lamb Kebab Night. And this is something he told me in confidence and when he did I didn’t say a word, not until I was sure he was finished because I knew how special it was that he was telling me, but when Rob went to the butcher shop, and saw a whole lamb lying on the counter, he got so upset, he had to leave. He made vegetable kebabs for his family that night instead and nobody even razzed him, his folks wouldn’t allow it.
I step off the bus and walk the block to Botchnik’s. Whenever I work with Rob I have a good time. He always gets me my cocktails first and he’s been teaching me how to do the garnishes. We talk about the guests at the parties, it seems to me everybody drinks like it’s their last night on earth. Rob says the alcohol helps them feel better about themselves. When he gets really busy he can barely look up at me when I come to the bar, but this smile sometimes shows up on the side of his face and I can tell I’ve made him laugh or at least I am not annoying him. He never laughs at anybody else at work like that. I feel like a real person around him. He’s twenty-three.
When I open the heavy wood door a damp saltine smell comes from the trampled carpet. Faded leafy tendrils swirl over threadbare maroon fabric that I am sure has been there for at least fifty years. Rob is behind the bar when I walk in, wearing his white shirt and black vest. I check to see if he noticed me but he’s just looking down, drying wine glasses.
I go straight to the back and flip through the rack of ruffled button-down white shirts to find a size that’s tighter than I usually wear and I pull a black vest off a wire hanger. I usually work in sneakers, but tonight I fish black high heels out of my backpack and check them over. I used a Sharpie before I left the apartment to fill in the scuffmarks and they look pretty good. I don’t put on my bowtie yet, I want to leave my shirt open at the top for as long as I can. I fix my stockings and pat down my old black skirt. It has nubs on it from when I dried it too hot. I was supposed to get a new one with my mom this weekend, along with a whole bunch of other stuff, a shopping spree she called it. I wanted to go so much, I wish she’d never promised something like that.
When I’m ready I go back out front. Rob has a handful of freshly cut orange slices in his hand and is cramming them into the garnish caddy for cocktails. I fluff my hair out again and join him at the bar.
“Hey, you don’t want to put the glasses into the ice bucket, remember?”
Rob has a smooth face with a high hairline, he probably had more of his dark blond hair even just a year ago, it was shrinking away from his roundish forehead. He looks up at me with his eyebrows arched. “The glass could break in the ice.”
“Oh, yeah. I forgot.” I make sure to look into his eyes when he hands me the scooper and I keep on looking. I sneeze.
“Gesundeit. How’s the prettiest girl in high school?”
...read more (4/10)I laugh. “Good I guess. I got third place at the science symposium.” He looks at my blouse where it’s unbuttoned.
He blinks. “That’s great.”
I stop filling glasses and lean over the bar on one elbow and I twirl a piece of hair. “I was so scared on the ride over here today.”
I get off the bar and open my eyes wide, worried. “I thought we were going to crash into a telephone pole.”
“What happened?” Rob stops stacking burgundy cocktail napkins. I see him notice my hair.
“We just skidded and skidded all over the place.” I whisper this, “I don’t think those drivers know what they’re doing in the ice.” I press a small scotch glass into Rob’s stack of napkins so they fan out like rays of a sun. I shake my head still looking down. “It’ll be really bad on the way home tonight. You know it’s supposed to snow again.” My heart is going fast, there’s a weird twitch pulling at the left side of my mouth. I bite my lip to stop it. “I bet you’re a good driver in the snow.”
“Sure.” Rob moves over to the garnish caddy. “I’m still alive.” He flashes me his smile.
When Mr. Botchnik isn’t around, Rob makes snacks for us. He’ll pick up a frilly cellophane toothpick, stab some fruit and hand it to me. My favorite is the orange slice, cherry, pineapple combo. He named it The Traci and he gives one to me now. I smile so he knows how special it is to me, and this time, I’ve never done this before, I touch his finger and thumb when he hands it to me. His skin is cool and smooth. I thank him in my softest voice, I nibble delicately at the large hunk of pineapple, but it’s really tough so I end up pulling the whole piece off the toothpick and pop it into my mouth. Rob watches me while I try to chew it and then his eyes go off to the left.
I freeze. Whenever Botchnik comes around, Rob waves his hand to scoot me away, our secret signal that means look busy. I toss the rest of the fruity toothpick behind the bar and scoop ice into my tumblers. ...read more (5/10)
Mr. Botchnik owns the place, he is old and his eyes are always darting behind his thick glasses, like he is looking everywhere for something he lost. His salt and pepper eyebrows dip low over the bridge of his nose and sweep up over his eyes like an enthusiastic checkmark. His legs are really bowed; he looks like a wishbone walking. He never sees me or speaks directly to me; he gives orders in my general direction. I pretty much duck when he comes around. He sends me out to the lounge to pass out appetizers, Rob will be at the second bar on the other side of the room.
It’s a wedding tonight and there are one hundred and fifty people here, most of them greedily shoving the same hors d’oevres into their mouth, like at every event. I have refilled my tray six times in the first half hour. There’s kosher pigs in blankets, little spinach pies, vegetarian egg rolls and chopped liver pate on melba toasts with curling pieces of dill that are not the fresh forest color of dill, they’re more like a droopy sage green. I don’t touch the stuff. Rob told me when I first worked with him three months ago that all the food at Botchnik’s was frozen and recycled and to stay away.
The headwaiter finally opens the doors to the dining room, I wait against the wood paneled wall near the bar and wait for the DJ to ask everybody to sit down so we can serve dinner. I stand first on one foot and then the other, they ache so bad. If my mom had made it up I’d be sitting on my sofa wearing cozy socks and pajamas by now. I’d drink hot cocoa and she would pour a glass of whatever Dad had around the house and tell me about who she’s dating, like she did the last time I saw her. I look over at Rob; he’s back at his station. I wonder if he thinks about me, I wonder if he knows how I feel.
The guests are seated, I just have one cocktail left to deliver. I’m thirsty and I haven’t eaten. I start for the bar to get some juice. There’s a pretty thirty-something year old woman with neat blond hair in a pompadour talking to Rob. She’s wearing a short silver dress and her elbows are on the bar holding a drink close to her mouth. She’s got black stockings on and a silver and black purse on a thin chain hanging to her hip. She’s leaning over the bar talking to Rob and he’s smiling. He’s laughing, and in between his quiet looks down at his tumblers and shot glasses, he’s looking up at her. He’s looking up at her a lot. She’s drinking her drink, a White Russian. I know all about White Russians. Rob and I make fun of people who drink them. He says they’re just like drinking a milkshake. If I could drink I would have a gin and tonic, that’s what Rob drinks. Crisp, clear, serious.
The White Russian lady drains her drink, she and Rob laugh together. He makes her another one and she takes it and sips at it. She’s not going anywhere. I tuck my tray under my arm and walk over to them; I am as tall as White Russian when I stand up straight.
I flop my tray on the bar. When there’s a break in their laughter I say, “Well, all my tables are eating.”
Rob finishes his story, “And that’s what they always ask for now.”
White Russian giggles and touches his hand. “Who knew vegetable kebobs could bring a family together?”
They laugh again. My cheeks flush. Rob told her The Kebab Story.
I take my headband off and run my hands through my hair and fluff it out again, but nobody is watching me. “Hey Rob, I need a gin and tonic and can I get something to drink? I’m so hot.” He looks up at me. I tilt my head to the side and smile. He winks. “Sure, kiddo.” He called me kiddo. He pours me a club soda, and hands it over, no garnish. I look at my drink, which would just be water if it weren’t for those bubbles popping around in the tall glass. It is almost not a drink. I reach for a straw and that’s when I see it. Rob has a toothpick. He slides a slice of orange on to it, and then a cherry and then a pineapple chunk. He didn’t forget after all. He holds it up, spins it around once and then, satisfied, hands it over to White Russian. Fruit garnish. He gave her fruit garnish. She tucks her chin down low and looks up at him with these big green sparkly eyes and says “Thank you. “
Fresh beads of sweat break out over my top lip. I am sure my eyes are going to pop out of my head if I have to watch anymore. And that’s when I do it.
“Rob, I need another G and T.”
Rob barely nods at me while he makes the drink. I watch him work, even though I don’t have to, I know his pours, how he drops the lime in casually after he gives it a gentle squeeze. “Here you go.”
I lean over as close to Rob as I can get and whisper “Thanks” right into his ear. I put both drinks on my tray, shoot White Russian a look, and turn. I swing my hips from side to side as I walk away, like a pendulum, the way I see some women do. My shoes slice into the sides of my feet even more this way and I have to suck in my breath. But I keep swinging in case Rob is still watching me. Finally, I make it to the crowd of paunchy guests who have packed themselves onto the shiny vinyl dance floor. I slip in between them and limp my way across the room as they bob to songs from the eighties.
I get to the lounge all the time pretending to look for the people whose drinks I am carrying. I put the tray down on a burgundy vinyl chair near the windows and look both ways. I part the brown wool curtains with my shoulder and snatch the two drinks off the tray. So nobody will see me hiding, I take off my shoes and press my body against the cold window. I take my first sip of the first drink. It is icy and bitter and fresh, like a sharp slap in the face. I drink some more and it cools me. Outside the snow is starting to flurry. Except for the rubber stamp shop sign across the street flickering from dim to dimmer and then dim to dimmer again, all the shops are dark. Only the occasional car passes, lighting up the road, the white noise of its tires on old snow is thrilling to me.
The folds of heavy curtain and the quiet of the dark space are like being at the theatre. After the divorce, when Mom came up to visit that February for my eleventh birthday, she took me to the Colonial Theatre in Boston to see a Broadway style production of Annie. The theatre had dark red freshly vacuumed carpet rolling over everything, it fanned out under every seat, blanketed every step, every rise in the floor. Little tiny lights glowed in peaked bulbs in sconces on ivory walls and chandeliers hovered like beautiful glass spaceships over our heads. The proscenium, sturdy and sweeping, arched elegantly up in front of us, deep creases cut into its creamy white surface.
...read more (8/10)The music started loud, booming, and the girls on stage sang with perfect pitch, perfect tilts of their head, and winning little girl smiles. In their perfectly ripped orphan clothing they sang about how hard life was. Their little faces screwed up tight as they romped through the orphanage belting out notes of lament at their unbearable lives. In rags, they jumped from tattered bed to tattered bed and then skidded across the floor on their battered knees in full musical abandon, glowing and happy somehow in their misfortune.
I sat next to Mom wearing my newish dress with white tights, my feet in patent leather Mary Jane shoes resting on the neat carpet. My mom looked down at me from her program and smiled, happy that I was happy, or happy with herself that she had chosen such a good gift. I craned my neck to see everything. What bliss to be an orphan girl singing about how hard life is, with everyone watching so lovingly.
Annie sang to the audience about her wishes, her pain, but nobody worried too much because we knew nothing bad was going to happen. It was a musical, everything was going to be good in the end. My eyes pulled everything in, crammed every detail into my head.
I wanted to be one of those girls, to be special like that. My mom’s perfume wafted over to me in small teasing waves, a reminder she was right there, next to me in the darkened theatre. We were safe and close, the way it was supposed to be. Nothing was better than to sit together like that, included, watching a world where nothing goes wrong. Even after my mom had driven back to Virginia, I thought about it. But then it just made me sad to remember. If you really can’t have something, it’s painful to wish for it.
I drink up the second drink and imagine the alcohol bathing my insides with its sting, changing me. Every part of my body feels weak. My feet are cut up and it burns to put my shoes back on. I come out from behind the curtain and pick up my tray. I’ve never done anything like this before. I am dizzy. I think I may be drunk. I’m going to find Rob.
It is ten thirty. The guests finally leave; they had the DJ play “Celebrate” by Kool and the Gang two more times. When I get back to the bar Rob is alone again, loading glasses up on dish racks for the kitchen. I begin to clear glasses off my table on a big tray and carry them back to the bar. I slope left as I walk, my high heels feel like rubber stilts. All I have to do is ask.
I take tiny careful steps and make it there with all my glasses.
I burp to myself and smile to cover the pause. “Yeah.” I set my tray down and take my glasses off one by one. I look at each glass as my hand reaches for it and watch as my hand places it on the bar. Once all the glasses are off my tray, I lean on it. I feel the dampness of the wet cork under my elbows where the glasses left rings. I look up at him, my heavy face in my hands. Here goes.
“Can you drive me home tonight?”
He stops wiping the bar and looks at me. And then he winks. “I think I can do that.”
I smile at him like a woman. My insides are fizzing around, and my head feels like a marshmallow. I turn around and somehow make it to another table to load up. The tray is full and ready to pick up now, but I can’t imagine having the strength. I slide it out to the edge and hoist it. My hand holding the tray wobbles and the glasses clink together. I cannot walk straight. Rob is still watching me but with a vague look of panic. I take another step forward and my left heel goes out from under me. I am falling, the glasses slide off the tray and orange, brown and red booze splashes everywhere. The glasses and I hit the floor at the same time. I am surrounded by shards.
It’s almost midnight. Small snowflakes are falling steadily as Rob and I drive across town in his black Toyota Corolla. I lean my head against the passenger side window to stop my head from spinning. When Botchnik rushed in red-faced, Rob told him I was sick, that I needed to get home and shushed me so I wouldn’t have to explain.
Rob has an air freshener that smells like cedar. I crinkle up my nose and look over at the cardboard tree dangling from the rearview mirror.
Rob cranks open all the windows and throws the car freshener onto the road. “You could have gone home early if you weren’t feeling well.”
“I didn’t want to go home.”
It’s cold in the car with the windows down and the night whipping past us. The windshield wipers go back and forth, but the snowflakes keep coming, shooting down together like stars from the black sky. I watch them, free and falling quickly, as they pile one on top of another. Everything is glittering white and fresh and the air blowing through the car is so clean, I feel a flutter in my chest. I want to believe things can be different, but kissing Rob won’t make my life beautiful. Nothing can change something from what it is.
Rob makes a turn and we are driving alongside the river. It rolls by choppy and raw. It keeps moving like it does every day, every night, tumbling past all the apartments, all the houses, with its dirty water, even though nothing will make it clean again.
Rob pulls onto my street, in front of my building. It is quiet in the car except for the dull knocking of the windshield wipers.
“You okay getting in?”
I gather my high heels and backpack from the floor and look at him.
I climb out of the car clutching my bag, my shoes dangle from my fingers. “Thanks, Rob.” When I shut the door, a high heel slips out of my fingers and lands on the new snow in front of my building.
I hold on to the rolled down window and lower myself down.
He squeezes my hand. “Take care of yourself.”
I nod and move away from his car. My eyes sting. I can’t swallow past the lump in my throat. I’m so tired of taking care of myself. I pick up my shoe and shake off the wet snowflakes that have already clumped themselves on the black vinyl. I walk toward my building. From our third floor apartment, blue television light flickers in the window like always when my father is home. I wipe tears off my face. Somebody is always missing.