The Brick Bar was hustling.
Some barely legal bimbos, or BLBs as I called them to the rest of the wait staff, were hogging the jukebox, playing dollar after dollar of late 90s boy bands and Celine Dion. If I had to listen to "My Heart Will Go On" one more time I might become physically ill. They swayed over to my end of the bar, the one with all the men, drinking and engrossed in the hockey game playing above my head.
It was still the beginning of the season, so everyone had their Sabres jerseys on except for the suits that game right from the office and didn't want to pay the obscene amount of money the scalpers were asking for tickets.
Even the BLBs were showing their team spirit. In their fashion, they had one tight, midriff baring baby pink jerseys, that laced up on either side, showing more skin, some side cleavage (that Cosmo told me was all the rage) and total lack of a bra. At least they had the common sense to be wearing jeans on such a cold rainy November night in Buffalo. The platform shoes would be dangerous later if the rain turned to sleet or ice like the weather report forecasted earlier, but their safety wasn't my problem.
I, on the other hand, was going old school, with a “vintage” blue and gold emblemed tee, modest enough that I wasn’t showing the world my goodies, but low cut enough that I could be sure the gentlemen would tip well. I make sure that my clothes fit, and aren’t immodestly tight or revealing since according to my doctor I was still 30 pounds over my “ideal BMI”. Still, I was proud of how I looked. Soft, with strength underneath the roundness.
Ever since my little brother Calum had left for Edinburgh University 5 months prior I’d spent the little extra time I had between working my two jobs and grading papers at the gym and modifying my diet. 50 pounds later, I looked like a whole new person, and felt like one too. My “regulars”, who had always tipped decently from my exceptional service as their bartender du jour started giving me more money, a direct result I was sure from losing some of my insecurities and letting a little bit of skin show.
Of course if you’d put my “new” body up against the BLB’s I’d be disgusting. My thigh was still larger than their waists, but I’d also be able to break them them twigs if put in a cage. The thought made me smile, as they sauntered up to me, wanting to know if I could make them a “Skinny Girl” Margarita. The Brick Bar didn’t really go for specialty drinks like that, and under normal circumstances the most I could offer them would be a Bud Light Lime. But thanks to my dieting I’d perfected a low-cal “girly” drink. And since they asked nicely and weren’t the usual bitchy BLB’s that I had to deal with I decided to forgive them their atrocious taste in music and make them the Lainey Loop de Loop.
“Omigod!” one of the nubile hockey fans moaned after she took a delicate sip from the slim bar straw, “what is this? It’s soooo good.”
I smiled again, imagining that was what she probably would sound like in bed with one of the hunks sitting next to her. They picked up on the sexuality of her voice and I saw the almost imperceptible shift of their bodies, beginning to angle towards the girls. They probably weren’t even aware they were doing it, eyes still on the game, but as one, a tall hulking blond with laugh lines etched around his eyes, tipped his head back to take a long pull on his Labatt Blue (beer of choice in deep Sabre-country) his eyes shifted over to the girls for a “subtle” check out. His irises widened and his nostrils flared. The dance would soon begin.
“You really want to know?” I said over the competing blare of hockey and music, as I wiped down the bar.
“Sure!” the other BLB squealed. “It doesn’t taste diet-y at all.”
The blond hunk was now turned toward the two girls, and I saw him elbow his friend. “Yeah, Lainey, what’cha making over there?”
I rolled my eyes. Xavier was one of my regulars. For four years I’d served him countless beers and seen him prowl after the BLBs. He got older, they never aged. On quieter nights he’d come in, sit and we’d get to talking. I asked him once why he hadn’t found anyone to settle down with yet. He told me, with a sexy twinkle in his eye, that he’d been waiting for me to ask him out. I’d blushed and rolled my eyes and told him I hoped he was enjoying the “solitude” of bachelorhood, since I wouldn’t be doing that anytime this millenium. We’d both laughed and I let him buy me a shot that I never really drank. But the truth was, I’d gone home and fantasized that he’d taken me home that night. I didn’t sleep until I’d made myself come three times. Xavier was deliciousness on a stick. He was, in short, an Adonis with the sweetest smile sex on legs could have.
“You really want to know X?”
“You betcha!”, he winked, and the girls glanced at me a little nervous from our flirting.
“Well, you’ll have to buy my new friends another round. My secrets don’t come cheap.”
The BLBs faces glowed in relief and their grins nearly blinded me from their whitened teeth. I left the foursome to get to know one another better and hurried to the other end of the bar to start making my way down with refresheners for my patrons.
It was just the type of person I was. Always so eager to help my fellow man. Lainey Strachan, doormat. I knew what some people thought of me. But honestly, I didn’t mind. I’ve spent most of my life taking care of other people, it feels like. First my “baby” brother, Calum, then my father, and now I look after Gran. It hasn’t been an easy life, but who wants easy? “If it was easy, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.” Sure my life is a lot more complicated than women’s softball, but when Tom Hanks spoke that line in “A League of Their Own” I felt it resonate within my very soul. And I’d seen people give up right in front of my eyes. I knew difficult. I lived with the scars everyday.
I worked the rest of my shift on automatic. Smiling, chatting, laughing with the patrons and staff. Nobody knew that I was floating by. I’d meant it when I said my secrets didn’t come cheap.
The bar closed down at 4 in the morning, like every other one in Buffalo. And because it was a Friday, it meant I had to stay until everything was cleaned and taken care of. The owners of Brick Bar had made me a part time manager two years earlier. I could have used the extra hour of sleep, but I needed the extra money more and by the time I stumbled home I was bleary eyed from being awake for nearly 24 hours, and practically vibrating from all the coffee I’d ingested during the day and night to keep going.
I yawned as I pulled my 1998 Ford Taurus into the garage attached to the small ranch house in the “urban-suburbs”. Getting too old for these all nighters, I thought. We’re not in college anymore Toto.
I’d noticed the added lethargy begin around my birthday in August. Only 28 and already I felt like an old maid. I spent my days teaching Advanced Placement English to a group of affluent teenagers in one of the area’s more well off school districts. I was lucky to have a job in that district, and I worked hard so that my students could excel. Originally I had wanted to work for a city school district, the pay was actually a little bit better once you factored in the added benefits the union gave me for working with “at risk” youths. I’d spent my student teaching at PS 81, and they found me a position there after I received my Master’s in Education from the local state university.
The administration didn’t know what to make of me. In two years I had managed what no other teacher at my school had in twenty. All of my students were graduating. Some with scholarships to various area schools. In fact, my record was so good, the School Board decided to made a formal inquiry into how I shaped my students from barely passing slackers to productive members of the community. It read on paper too much like a movie script, impossible results clearly must be fictitious and somehow I must be cheating my students and the system. And then there was the unspoken “race factor”. How did a 20 something heavyset white woman control 80 inner city thugs/probable gang members, let alone get them to excel, unless she was somehow corrupting them?
The local newspaper had had a field day with me. They dug through some of the more easily discovered secrets of my childhood and youth, but were never able to uncover the bigger and badder ones. Yes, my mother had disappeared when I was thirteen. Yes, my father had been subsequently institutionalized at the Greater Buffalo Psychiatric Center when I was 16 and my grandmother, Bridget, my mom’s mother, who had emigrated from Scotland with my mother, had been charged with raising us. Yes, Calum was a homosexual and active in the local GLBT scene.
But what had really taken the city for a ride was me. I graduated summa cum laude from the university with both my bachelor and master degrees. I wasn’t a 4.0 student by any means, but that was probably because I worked two jobs while in school full time. I was smart enough in high school that I received some scholarships for college, but they weren’t enough to pay for school, and money was tight at home. I had read the horror stories of people graduating college with a degree, no job, and $50,000 of student debt and was determined to pay for my education in cash. I had no police record, and my coworkers and peers had only good things to say about me. Some of the snarkier people threw around the phrase “Little Miss Goody Two Shoes”. But I was. And I was proud of the fact that I had not one black mark against my name.
“Your name is the only thing you have that a person can’t take away from you, Lainey. Don’t ever forget that.” It was one of the last coherent bits of advice my Dad ever gave me.
And when all was said and done, the truth had set me free. I hadn’t “cheated”, fudging test scores and giving advance answers like I had been accused of. Nor had I promised my students money, drugs, or sexual favors if they graduated like some more awful rumors insisted. What I did was this: On the first day of class I told my students a story. It was a children’s fairy tale, and they rolled their eyes and made nasty comments, until one girl told them all to shut up, she wanted to hear it. And my students listened to this girl. And they listened to me. And when my story was over, some had tears in their eyes, and most were smiling. So I asked them a question. “Who wants to live this life?” They all did. Even the surly boys in the back of the class. I had them take out a piece of paper and right a pledge for me, a promise. Full of their goals and dreams of their future, and how they thought they could make it happen. I explained how a high school degree would help them on their journeys. And at the end of their essay I made them write, “I can not promise to succeed in this life I want. But I can promise to try and achieve it.” Every last person in my room signed their pledge.
I did that for each class I had that day. And each student signed their pledge. I made a pledge to them as well. That I would do whatever was in my power to help them if they asked for it. Pride, I told them, is a fool’s stubbornness. Humility can be strength. 74 students graduated because they told themselves they would try, and when they stumbled, they trusted me enough to help them, without mockery, without exasperation.
The papers never focused that I also minored in psychology. I knew my demons. Self-psychoanalyzed, I had them all tidied up, packaged neatly in bows, a warehouse full. If I could straighten myself out, some underprivileged, urban wanna-be thugs were cake. Of course at the time I thought I had my demons under control. I didn’t realize I had some supercharged doozies still hibernating deep inside until years later.
After the hearing where I had been cleared of any wrongdoing - in fact, although the panel had to slap my wrist for teaching outside the prescribe NYS teacher’s manual (where we given lesson plans that taught towards achieving passing test results, not towards independent thought) they also lauded my methodology. While not every teacher would be capable of such results, my show of compassion and understanding towards my students went a lot further than a state mandated binder ever could.
I was reinstated at my school, but was left with a sour taste in my mouth at the administration, and when one of the local private schools approached me about taking over their English department, I took the opportunity and left at the end of the school year.
My replacement was teaching with the same methodology as I had, and achieving a great deal of success. Some of the other teachers at the school had banded together and were working together to promote the “Lainey Strachan Method” at the school. I gave them my blessing and turned my face and future towards the Sacred Heart Academy.
An all girls Catholic school, they were all going to graduate and go to college. The Board and parents wanted me to use my method of teaching to help them focus on their goals beyond school. So now, instead of pledges and goals of “not being another pregnant teen in my family” and “getting out of the neighborhood gang without being murdered” I saw, in beautiful, graceful penmanship, “running for local Congress in order to better represent the needs of our fine, albeit depressed city” and “become a biochemical botanist and discover new ways to promote sustainable farming in third world nations”. Admirable goals from a distinctly different demographic of students to be sure.
As much as I wanted to drop myself into bed I forced myself into the shower and let the hot water cascade over me, hoping it might thaw the ice cold ache I felt deep in my soul. This was how my depression crept along inside my veins, skittering like a silverfish. It was never too far beneath the surface, and tended to worm its tedious tendrils through my system when I was tired and stressed out. And this morning I was a jittery mess of both. As I shampooed my moderately long cocoa brown hair I closed my eyes and did some mediative deep breathing, massaging my scalp.
A clump of hair came with my hands as I rinsed and moved to the conditioner. It didn’t alarm me anymore - I’ve been “shedding” my hair like that everyday since I turned 19. The first time it happened was right after I’d died my hair black. I thought the dye had done something and I would come out of the shower bald. I’d had a mild panic attack in the shower, but when I came out no one could tell I’d gathered a clump of hair roughly the size of a golf ball in my hands. Later that year I’d found out my thyroid had pretty much stopped working and was put on a heavy dose of synthroid. And while my thyroid hormone had leveled out, I’d continued to lose a handful of hair everyday and wasn’t able to drop the 50 pounds I’d gained that year. Until now. The weight was off, but the hair? It would forever clog my drain.
I’d lucked out though, because although I had fine hair, according to my hair stylist I had a “crap-ton” of it, which made it appear thick and full and took curls like a dream. Or it would if I ever put forth the energy of curling it. Most days I kept it back off my face in a bun or twist. Occassionally, I’d play with a variation on a French braid.
The shower made me feel a little better. I put my fleece pajama “rumping” pants on with an oversized Metallica tee, combed some anti-frizz gel into my towel dried, but still damp hair and brushed my teeth, scrutinizing the woman looking back at me from the partially fogged mirror.
She had deep purple shadows under her eyes, making them look more grey than blue. A perky upturned nose sat daintily on her face, and a high foreehead was visible with her bangs brushed back. I took a moment to fluff my bangs back in place. I hate my forehead, it’s proportionate to the rest of my face and head, but just feels like a massive unadorned space between my hairline and eyebrows. As I spit and rinsed I finished my examination: my skin was clear, although slightly blotchy from exhaustion and the heat of the water. It was fair in a way only a Northern European heritage could make it: pale ivory tinged with a slight flush of the blood coursing beneath its surface. I didn’t have an abundance of freckles, just a few beauty marks here are there. I loved my skin, fair as Snow White I always thought, but it blushed something fierce whenever I felt any emotion too strongly. Some people wear their hearts on their sleeves. I wear my feelings on my face. My lips are full and in a perpetual pout. If I had a dollar for everytime someone told me to “smile” when I was just walking around in a neutral mood, well, I wouldn’t have to tend bar on the weekend to pay the rest of my bills.
Yawning, I dragged my feet towards my bedroom at the far end of the hall.
“Lainey, child? Is that you?”
I stopped outside of my Nanna’s bedroom. 85 years old and still ticking away like the Energizer Bunny, I love my Nanna. She’s my second mother, and living with her, most days is a joy and blessing, not an inconvenience as it would be for other people my age.
“Morning, Nan,” I whispered as I opened the door. “Everything okay? How was your night?”
“Ach, dearie me lass, are ye jus’ gettin’ in th’ door?” Nanna spoke with a thick burry Scottish brogue, rolling her r’s and cutting off the ends of words willy-nilly. Most people could barely understand her, but growing up with it, her voice was the music of the Highlands, bagpipes and woodsmoke, icy winter breezes and soft summer rain on fields of heather to me.
“Aye, Nan. I had to close tonight. Err, yesterday. Whatever. I’m dead on my feet Nanna. I’ll be up around 2. Or 4. Will you be home, or is Daisy taking you guys to dinner before bingo?”
“I’ll be here. Get ye to bed dearie. I’ll see you when ye wake.”
“Night Nan.” I walked into the room and place a dutiful kiss on her papery forehead. “Love you muchly.”
“Love you muchly more Lainey. Sweet and pleasant dreams take ye.”
I closed the door behind me on my way out and went into my room.
Nanna insisted that I take the master bedroom after I graduated college and began working as a teacher. The room held too many memories for both of us, of better times, and sometimes, like now, when I was almost too tired to function, I could swear I saw the ghosts of my parents. Mom sitting at the vanity, putting the final touches on her hair and makeup, spraying an atomizer of her favorite perfume by Jo Malone that my father bought her last Christmas. I could smell the delicate fragrance, notes of white musk and iris, blended into a slightly floral mixed with woodsyness. And there was Dad, coming in from the walk in closet, putting his silver cuff links in. I couldn’t count how many times I’d seen my parents dance through this ballet as a child. I would stand, out of the way, at the threshold and watch them, nearly every Saturday night as they played out their routine, always peeking glances at the other through the oversized mirror at my mother’s expensive oak vanity.
Once in awhile their eyes would meet through the mirror and lock on each other. Some part of my adolescent mind knew that there was something secret in that gaze and told me to look away. But the rest of me was too curious and enchanted by the energy that vibrated around them. It charged the air between my parents, and when they would lock gazes I could practically feel the jolt of electricity surge between them. Most often, my mother’s would widen, her mouth open just the tiniest bit as her breath hitched, unable to take anything but the shallowest of breaths. Dad’s eyes would darken, like a storm about to explode on them. He’d reach his hand towards her, yearning to touch her, as if his very life depended on it. Mom would close her eyes and moan softly at the gentlest of caresses was stroked along her shoulders, neck, or arm; anywhere she had exposed skin.
And then I’d move, or make a sound and break their spell. Mom would snap her eyes open and look down at her hands blushing, while Dad would chuckle low in his throat and turn away from me for a moment, adjusting one last thing (which as an adult I’d realized with horror had been an erection) and then striding to the door to pick me up and flip me upside down, spinning and giggling like an idiot.
So many memories, I thought as I shook my head, but I wouldn’t trade any of them, unless it would bring them back. For that, I’d willingly give up every last one, not recognize them. Calum and Nanna would though, and that would be enough.
My eyes glanced at the beautiful oak king-sized bed in the center of the room and slid to my mother’s vanity, now being used as a computer desk. My laptop lay open on the shining surface. I debated turning it on and checking my email. I hadn’t checked it since my lunch break on Friday afternoon and was wondering if Calum had written me back yet. The last bit of correspondence I’d received from him was early on Halloween, two weeks prior. He’d been planning on going to a big party sponsored by the History Department of the University and then early the next day he was heading to an archaelogical dig for a number of weeks deep in the Highlands, near Ben Nevis, the highest elevation in Scotland. He wouldn’t have regular internet access, but promised to write if he could get to a cyber cafe during his expedition.
That was the last I’d heard from him. He was due back, according to his email, on November 14th, which was today. Not that I expected to be his first priority upon entering civilization, but Calum knew I’d be concerned, if not downright worried, if he didn’t make some sort of contact within 24 hours. He’d feel the same way. We had been emailing back and forth almost daily since he’d left, never more than 24 hours would pass without an email, or phone call, unless we’d made it clear in advance that something would prevent it, which in my case meant a pile of term papers to grade on top of a weekend full of busy season at Brick Bar.
I plugged my cell phone in it’s charging dock, which doubled as an alarm clock. I didn’t have a fancy phone that needed a data plan and would suck up my life with facebook and stupid games that wanted to get me hooked and then make me pay for “character upgrades” so I could try to win something that was constantly evolving and growing so players would never reach the end. Nope, a regular, basic cell phone, with limited texting, and my iPod. Those, plus my laptop (which was technically property of the school) were my main concessions to technology, that both fascinated and frightened me all at the same time.
I double checked to make sure I had set my weekend alarm and was asleep almost the instant my head hit the pillow.
The Brick Bar was hustling.