The barman kissed her neck and she pushed him away. No, she kissed his neck, letting the tip of her tongue dart out and make a wet spot.
He said, “Don’t, my boss will see,” and squirmed away. His skin tasted like the smoke from the cigarette they’d shared on the patio. He stared down at her, maintaining the open space between them.
He didn’t want her, but she’d pursued him anyway. She came into the pub most nights, asking for a cider on tap. She didn’t eat anything because she wanted to feel skinny in case he changed his mind, but night after night the bubbles in the cider began to bloat her belly.
One night she switched to straight vodka, and that’s when her vision began to swim and distort. She stumbled off the bar stool, went to the ladies, and peed. She judiciously reminded herself to wash her hands but scalded her wrist in her clumsiness: blue veins and white flesh, tinted pink.
She leaned her forehead against the cold tiled wall and thought of white roses, then pink ones, then red. The way her soon-to-be-ex-husband had patiently progressed through the flower’s hues when they were first dating. She’d kept each little card in her trinket box.
She didn’t want any of that now. She just wanted to get laid.
After the vodka and the forced neck kiss, she left the pub. The orange harvest moon had risen and she felt unsafe. I deserve what comes to me, she mused. She imagined him meeting her there later, the barman, knowing how it would go: she would get on her knees in the pine needles. Under the moon, she’d suck his dick and savor the shape of it in her mouth. She’d spit, of course, to take back some power. Then she’d place her hand on his thigh and ask if he wanted more.
She crashed into tree trunks but went deeper into the woods. Her sweater’s sleeves caught on prickly holly bushes—too early for the bright red berries. She trudged through patches of nettles in her boots. She knew the houses on the other side of the trees. She couldn’t face someone she knew, so she circled back to find the place she’d pictured in her fantasy.
The barman had given her reasons he couldn’t be seen dallying with customers: he had a girlfriend and a baby with that nice girl, he had his son’s date of birth tattooed on his arm.
“Are you likely to forget?” she’d asked.
He’d laughed and said, “Believe me, if I could, I would.” By the little flirt in his voice, she knew intuitively he was addressing her offers and not his son’s birthday. She even felt his hand linger momentarily when he handed over her drink. That playful non sequitur sparked a tiny hope, one that compelled her to return to the pub, even on weeknights, when she should have been home in her kitchen scrubbing the dishes and packing school lunches.
After what could’ve been minutes or hours, she found the spot, or what could’ve been the spot, and sat sloppily, pretzeling her legs and resting her chin on her knee. She wore a short denim skirt with thick tights, high boots. She knew she looked sad and desperate—dressing too young, coloring her hair, lining her eyes and then smudging them. Now, she rubbed at her face with the heel of her palm. The burn on her wrist stung and she thought, fuck them all. Fuck the way the whole tectonic world goes round and round, yet our little lives stutter and falter.
She’d slept there, in the leaves and the dirt, until something woke her. The sound of a man’s voice, angry. She slunk back into a tree’s shadow. She wanted to run, or at least to crawl into a hole, but she couldn’t move her body. The cider, the vodka, and the dark autumn chill had frozen her limbs. The terror of the last few months came upon her in one ugly swoop, and she wished she was home in bed with her family intact.
The man’s voice grew louder. She hid her face in the fallen leaves and prayed, though she didn’t believe in a god who answered human pleas.
Then, a snuffling against her ear.
A warm whuffing, and sour like moldy meat.
“Dammit, George! Get back here!” the man roared. He came so close he almost stepped on her back. She lay there smelling dog breath, feigning stillness, pretending to be a tiny hillock.
As the man bent to inspect George’s find, she felt his exhale too, a waft of whiskey. He might’ve been as drunk as she was—as stupid, as desperate as she was—and he wasn’t the barman, but a taller, heavier man.