I watched Lindsay usher the last couple out the door and into the street and, when her back was turned, I pulled a twenty dollar bill out of my pocket, folded it in half, and laid it on the counter. She turned, her black clothing obscuring the pleasant lines of her body in the shadows of the bar, and she reached behind her to undo her apron.
"Come on, Doc, I wasn't serious, you know," she said. She smiled, walked up to the bar, put to fingers on the twenty and slid it back to me.
"You won. You guessed it," I said. I'm not sure how Lindsay and I pulled the Valentine's Day shift, but I would have wagered the same twenty dollars I bet Lindsay when we were trying to guess which couple we'd need to kick out at closing time that our manager, Ricky, stuck us on the schedule because he knew we both had no one to go home to.
And maybe he thought we might need someone to talk to when all was said and done.
It wasn't the first working Valentine's Day for either of us. I spent six months in an office once upon a time, but I'd been an itinerant dispenser of alcohol since I was twenty-three, and twenty-three was getting to be a long time ago. You work a lot of nights in this job, and you spend a lot of holidays watching other people enjoy those holidays.
There's a beauty to it, you know. Nights like this, guys like me fade into the background and let everyone else work their own magic. We'd had two proposals tonight -- it was a nice bar, with hardwood floors and velvet drapes and good music, and not a bad place for a marriage proposal for the young and brash, or the old and comfortable. We had one of each, the first a bed-headed grad student offering a ring he couldn't afford to a beautiful brunette with thin-rimmed glasses, and the other a balding man in a hundred-dollar suit, sliding the little blue case across the table to a plump, warm-eyed woman with hair dyed blonde to hide her greys and just a little too much lipstick.
Lindsay scurried up to me after the latter -- she was cocktail waitressing and moving with her boundless fluidity across the floor the way only the best can -- and whispered in my ear.
"Hey there, lady," she said, mimicking the man's smoker's voice. "I think it'd be kinda nice we settled down together."
The other reason I figured Ricky put us on that night was because we had both, in the days leading up to the holiday, been vocally unbitter about it all. Lindsay showed up the day before in a tee-shirt that said "get over it" in old-fashioned typeface, and, well, Ricky has known me long enough that I long ago tired of the woe-is-me game Valentine's Day tends to bring out in us.
It does, doesn't it? The most independent and secure women I've ever met become irrational and overwrought come February 14th. It isn't limited to the ladies, either. I told you I've been doing this a long time, and I've poured shots for more men crying in their cups, bitter and frustrated and missing someone who never wanted to have him in the first place.
Sure, I was one of them once upon a time, and I was good at it, too, an Olympic champion of wallowing, but at some point you get sick of the water in your boots and you start picking up your feet.
The love of Lindsay's life walked out on her two years ago. She told me this during a wet Monday night shift, with three Japanese businessmen at the bar and a couple of lost-looking women in pants-suits nursing Cosmopolitans near the windows. She said it the same way she told me about dropping out of law school, though, as if the change to her life came as easily as breathing. The two events happened in the same year, and I think, at that time, Lindsay somehow learned, or decided, to think no further ahead than that next breath. I admired her a little for that, but I hoped she'd grow out of it before too long. It catches up to you after a while, and I liked her enough to not want her to turn out like me. I had a couple of years on her. She still had a chance.
We both looked at the twenty on the counter. She raised an eyebrow at me. I snatched it up.
"Let me buy you a drink, then," I said.
Lindsay laughed as I turned around and picked up a bottle of Maker's Mark.
"Ricky's buying me a drink."
I lined up a pair of tumblers and poured us each a drink. We clinked glasses, and she leaned back on the counter, propped up on her elbows. Her dark hair was held in a loop along the back of her neck by a silver clip.
"Not a bad night," she said.
"Did you see the little old couple?"
"With the matching canes?" I said. "He's Benji. He's been coming here since he was a kid."
"Wherever 'here' was before it was this place."
It was that sort of night, a swirl of neckties and black dresses, perfumes blending together in a cacophony of flowers and vanilla and musk. Ricky had wanted the receptionists to give out carnations, but Lindsay told him carnations were the Walmart of flowers and to either splurge for roses or do nothing at all. Ricky didn't splurge, but that didn't stop the Easter parade of flowers to drift through. We get the romantic set here, the men who are good at this, who don't view the holiday as some penance for the rest of the year.
Lindsay had suggested the bet. Regardless of the night we generally had to shoo people out once the ugly lights came on, but she had a feeling there would be some couple gazing deeply into each others' eyes and too drunk on each other to notice they were the only ones left. One hour before closing time we made our choices -- I selected the grad student and his new fiancee, because I've kicked out more grad students because they wouldn't stop talking than frat boys because they thought the tap was still on. She picked this homely pair seated against the back wall, her with straw-colored hair and glasses two sizes too big, him with oversized incisors and a soft waistline. Lindsay chased them out fifteen minutes after closing, gently crouching down beside their table to interrupt them. He shook Lindsay's hand on the way out and waved to me like he had just won a flight to the moon.
"How did we end up here?" Lindsay asked, taking a deep sip of her whiskey.
"I think Ricky knew we didn't have dates--"
"No, I mean here. I could be a lawyer, you know."
"And I know why they call you Doc."
"I'd say that makes no sense to me, but," she shrugged. "Big glass house. I live in it."
"Just because you're smart enough to do something doesn't mean you have to do it," I said.
"Spoken like someone who knows."
I cleared out the dishwasher and started sliding wine and martini glasses into the overhead rack, watching Lindsay wipe down a table. She looked over at me.
"Is it strange that I'm entirely unphased about working on Valentine's Day, and that I'm more annoyed that I'm going to miss the last train and I'll need to take a cab home?"
"Not strange," I said. "I'd call that practical."
"I thought so." She smirked, and a lock of hair fell down into her face. She blow it out of her eyes and went back to cleaning. "You know, though... now that it's over..."
"Sort of feels like you missed out on something?"
"Yeah," she said. "Not angry, just sort of... just that. Like I missed something."
I picked up a napkin and twisted it into a rose, a stupid old bartender's trick that doesn't impress anyone anymore. I wandered out from behind the bar and placed it on Lindsay's table. She chuckled.
"You're about forty-five minutes late," she said, picking it up. "If you did this by midnight, I would have made you something out of a doily."
"What can you make out of a doily?"
She laughed. "Nothing. Make something up, though. You know, I can make a better rose than you. Yours is all lopsided."
I walked back to the bar, looked around at carnage, and flexed my shoulders to stretch out the knots.
"Hey Linds? Let's leave the cleanup for the morning people. They all got laid tonight, the least they can do is clean up for us."
"Works for me," she said, trotting into the breakroom to get her coat. Threw out my unfinished drink, and checked the locks on the back door, pulled down the shades, put the cash in the safe. Lindsay reemerged wearing a brown wool peacoat and an oversized red scarf. She had the paper rose tucked behind one ear.
"Hang on," I said.
"If I bolt I can catch the last train."
"I'll drive you home," I said.
I went through the swinging doors to the storage area and grabbed my threadbare leather jacket. When I walked back out, Lindsay was squinting at me.
"Something on my face?"
"Y'know, Doc," she said. Her hands were in her pockets. "We could--"
"Just let me get you home safe," I said.
And I did, and we were both silent the whole ride home. She found an old Mary Lou Lord album in my glove compartment, and put "Subway" on repeat. Without drama she kissed me on the cheek outside her apartment building.
"Should do this every year," she said, placing a hand on my shoulder.
"Yeah," I said. "Yeah, maybe we should."