By Penny Zang
Each night, after work, we changed our names. We were trying on new identities, seeing which ones fit. Serena and I would throw off our aprons and get undressed in the car, wiggling into tight black pants and shirts thin as napkins. Sometimes we wore red lipstick, sometimes eye glitter. Then we’d find a new bar with the same tattered barstools we were used to balancing on, the same veil of smoke and low light that felt like home. To the men who approached us, we turned into different girls, ones who knew how to charm even without the promise of making a tip.
Our new names were decided on the spot, never the same name twice. They were names we’d once used for our baby dolls, names we’d wished our moms had given us: Isabel, Deanna, Lily. Everything else came later—our stories, our new personalities—fueled by beer and tequila, a practiced game of improvisation. Sometimes men invited us home or out to their car. Sometimes the night just fizzled and we’d stumble out to the street in the wrong direction, too lost to even know it. We’d stop to eat greasy pizza and compare notes, our throbbing feet the only part of us that wanted to give up.
I started creating new names when management changed the uniforms at work and we no longer had to wear a nametag. I could suddenly be anyone I wanted, anyone my table needed me to be. I could be quiet or confident, quirky or poised—the kind of girl that I knew I’d never really be. Serena loved hearing my new work stories and wanted in on it, too. So we went to new bars with our new names because our old ones had worn out.
On the other side of the harbor, too far for us to walk, we found a string of bars that were once historic row homes but now smelled like Old Bay seasoning and steamed shrimp. We’d drink beers bigger than our faces and pretend to watch whatever game was playing. Serena flirted with the bartender for free shots and if one of us went to the bathroom, we let the other one hold our drink.
“No Roofies,” we said. We tried to make it sound like a joke.
It was late September, 2001, just the beginning of drunk guys in bars asking us “Where were you when it happened?” Serena, glued to her seat, yawned into an empty bottle. Climbing up onto a bar stool, I squinted through the blur of smoke, scanning the bar to find some guy who would pay our tab. It was Last Call.
There were the usual crowds of girls slumped over the bar and the groups of guys with wedding rings. There was, as always, some sloppy mismatched couple making out against the juke box and without looking, I knew at least one girl was in the bathroom, weeping about her night. But I trained my eyes to focus on the men who hadn’t paired up yet, the ones who still had full drinks, who hadn’t yet given up. I wore Serena’s leather mini skirt and even though I didn’t fill it out the way she did, I pretended that I could.
“Find one?” Serena asked. She folded our bill into a paper airplane and let it sail across the bar, careless the way only an unpiloted plane can be careless.
A man standing alone on the other side, full beer in hand, reached out to catch it. Orioles baseball cap, deliberate stubble, expensive watch. I waved and he walked right over.
The jukebox switched to Al Green’s “Love and Happiness,” and for a moment, there was nothing to worry about, not ever.
We were Camilla and Emily then, physical therapists from Syracuse visiting Baltimore for just one night. Mr. Stubble was from somewhere else, too, but halfway through introducing himself I slid my fingers down the front of his jeans.
“It’s Last Call. Why don’t you buy us a drink.”
He tried not to smile as he flagged down the bartender but once we saw the slightest grin creeping out, we knew we had him. No one’s got a better smile than a stranger at closing time.
Later, when our tab was settled and the bar lights were turned up to reveal the other stragglers, I wondered out loud where we were going next. Serena wrinkled her forehead. It was the same face she made when rent was due or when I went to the grocery store and returned with all our grocery money spent on Jell-O, vodka, and condoms.
I leaned in to tuck in the tag of her shirt, escaping out the back as if to give us away. I planted an air kiss beside her ear and whispered, “I told him we were sisters. He wants to have a threesome.”
She didn’t even wait until he went to the bathroom to drag me out into the street. We’d missed the last Water Taxi but she knew the long walk back to Federal Hill would be sobering. It was a sticky Baltimore night and the air smelled like molasses from the Domino Sugar Plant. With all that burnt up sweetness surrounding us, I think we were happy.
Before we started changing our names, we stayed closer to home and just went to bars where we knew our customers wouldn’t go. That was the year Serena and I both waited tables at places we couldn’t afford to eat, trendy wine restaurants near the Inner Harbor where crab cakes were small and overpriced. Our customers were young professionals who lived in the same neighborhood, people who weren’t much older than us.. They had 9-5 jobs, designer shoes, and they ordered lots of wine. They never made eye contact and gave us their credit cards without looking at the bill.
After work, too tired to step out of our uniforms, we went to places where we knew the bartenders, where beers were cheap and it didn’t matter what we smelled like. Later, spinning on our barstools, making eyes at some blurry faced stranger, we told stories about our tables, then drank fast to forget them. Nights were messy but mostly predictable. I’d unbutton a man’s shirt, sing out loud to Bob Marley, take a bite out of a lemon, and lose my phone into the Claw Machine. Or we’d drink until we were cut off, then go back to our apartment for more drinking, more smoking. More, more, more. Maybe I’d fool around with someone cuter and drunker than me. Maybe Serena and I would just talk about the weird way the sky never gets dark in the city. Mostly we’d just sit there— tired of talking, tired of charm.
Sometimes the other servers came over, too. They’d throw up in our sink and give each other shoddy lap dances. They’d roll joints on an upside down Frisbee and leave late, their clumsy laughter lingering down into the alley beneath us, where the rats squealed all night. Then it was just me and Serena again. She would hold my hand and we wouldn’t mention the rent or the rats or work. Maybe later for that. We wouldn’t dwell on the smoke in our hair or the taste of a boy’s desperate mouth or our resolutions to be better women. The next day, we’d wake on the carpet, still wearing our uniforms, our fingers still locked together.
“At least we’ve got each other,” I might say. “We’re lucky.”
After one especially hard night at the restaurant, when Serena was too pissed off to drink, she went home without telling me, while I kept drinking, loving how much attention the only girl in the bar gets. She found me later on our doorstep, my pulse just a rumor, my pants at my knees. It wasn’t until the next day when everything started to hurt. Bite marks blossomed on my neck and my wrists purpled, bruises like bracelets. Mostly, the memory of that night lingered like the edges of a dream, random scenes and blank spaces.
After that, we no longer drank in our uniforms and no longer drank alone, our drinks unattended. Something had opened up, some collective rupture that refused to heal. I bought dark eyeliner and Serena fixed our faces so we looked like clowns or drag queens, anyone but ourselves. We wore each others’ clothes. We used our mothers’ names. Sometimes, when Serena thought I had blacked out, she tried to apologize and sometimes I let her.
We weren’t looking for boyfriends. God, no. Neither of us claimed to have ever had real boyfriends before, just guys we slept with, who either called us or they didn’t. They were guys who drank forty ounce bottles of malt liquor and turned their shirts inside out when they got into fights. Guys who called us “Babe.” They were guys we gave nicknames to: Crooked Dick, Mr. Long Tongue, One Pump Chump. They were guys who were “cute enough.” The closest thing I’d had to a boyfriend was a guy who’d told me that Serena was prettier than me, who once threw a pitcher of beer at my head, and who laughed when I told him to stop calling me.
Serena had been sleeping with Nick, the bartender at our restaurant, since the summer. I’d run into him in the hallway, wearing Christmas tree boxers even though it wasn’t even close to Christmas. Nick was the cute guy, the guy married women came in to see, then wrote graffiti about in the bathroom. He had large arms and the kind of rough hands that looked like he might know how to build a house if you needed one. He spent slow shifts writing poems on cocktail napkins and flipped off any of the other guys who gave him shit about it. Serena said he owned a cat named David Lee Roth, a mean, horny thing with extra claws who jumped out at you from behind corners and humped your legs while you were sleeping.
Nick had already slept with most of the girls at Ripe except me because I mostly hated him. Hated his hemp necklace and that he used more hair product than me. Hated that he sold drugs behind the restaurant dumpster, the kind of drugs guys could slip into a drink. Plus, Serena asked me not to. She thought I slept with everyone. When the landlord, after months of her calling him to fix the garbage disposal, finally fixed it for me, she was sure I’d at least flashed him my boobs. Pizza delivery boys, gas station attendants, homeless men in the alley, she made jokes about me sleeping with all of them. But with Nick, all she’d said was “Please, Beth. Leave this one for me.”
On nights that Nick slept over, I sat out on the balcony alone and looked for shooting stars or falling planes. If I stayed awake long enough I thought I might hear pigeons cooing or the sound of joggers panting as they ran to Fort McHenry at sunrise. I drank a whole pot of coffee myself, mixing each bitter mug with vodka. I drank until the caffeine and alcohol made me feel something, which, of course, I mistook for feeling nothing. In the row house across the street, I couldn’t tell if the silhouette of a couple pressed against the window were fighting or having sex. Sometimes it all looked the same.
It was September and Serena waited by the mailbox to hear from a graduate school she’d applied to 600 miles away. We were biding our time, avoiding any decisions we needed to make. We needed to renew our lease. We needed to buy new work shoes. I fantasized about quitting my job by throwing off my apron in the middle of the dinner rush and storming out, but Serena told me to wait. The Magic Eight Ball, no matter what we asked, always said the same thing: “Reply hazy.”
On the big screen at work, the same footage aired every day, the planes crashing over and over again. We watched it with the volume muted. The sounds of glasses clinking and cooks yelling became a sort of soundtrack. Our customers watched it while they chewed, their faces blank and their emotions suspended. Children looked up from their desserts and said “I can’t eat anymore. This is just too much.”
When we went out, I sometimes made our new names clever or cute: Laverne and Shirley, Lucy and Ethel. Thelma and Louise. Or Serena could be Betty, the long lost granddaughter of Woody Guthrie, whose eyes were guarded. And I could be Veronica, who had an unwavering talent for darts no matter how drunk she was. Bull’s-eye every time. She was the kind of girl who sent drinks to groups of married men or cornered pretty girls in the bathroom just to say “I’m coming for your man.”
More than once a man stopped me in the middle of a kiss to ask, “What’s your name again?” And after a while, I couldn’t remember either. I created such complicated histories for myself that Serena rolled her eyes and began refusing to play along.
One night while Serena tried to feather my hair like Farrah Fawcett in a tiny bar bathroom, she cleared her throat a dozen times and asked me about the rent money that I still owed her. I sighed, my way of pretending like I wouldn’t be too hungover in the morning to pick up a shift.
Her voice was ice but she tried to warm it. “Maybe we should just go home tonight,” she said. “We could watch Pulp Fiction and drink Shirley Temples.”
I must have laughed and she must have scowled because we didn’t have much to say to each other after that. She could threaten to leave but we both knew she would stay. She owed me at least that. We ended up staying out so late that night that the homeless man on the corner of Fort and Covington didn’t ask us for money but gave us a prayer card instead.
We lived .59 miles from the Domino Sugar Plant, its glowing orange light like a monument, a north star I could always rely on. Some days our neighborhood smelled so much like burning sugar, I’d find myself walking toward it, led by instinct, by appetite. And on some nights, while Serena worked, when the streets were dark, but not dark, lit by streetlights and bar signs and all the neon in the harbor, I peered into bar windows. I watched bartenders spill beer from the tap and distracted men play darts. Women pretended to not know how to shoot pool and the jukeboxes played all the terrible songs I couldn’t help but sing along to. I watched all of it, the night choking with so possibility, but I never went in alone. Not anymore.
As I walked down one way streets, I tried to imagine some not too distant time in the future, when Serena and I would be actual adults. I didn’t know how it would happen, but I tried to imagine shinier, less traumatized versions of ourselves, like our customers, who paid to get their hair highlighted and made regular appointments for pedicures and facials. I imagined cashmere sweaters and diamond rings, leather sofas and stainless steel appliances. The more I walked, the more I could imagine that kind of woman, a wife, a mother, a woman who didn’t work for tips. That woman bought fresh cut flowers and knew how to bake complicated pastries. She drank coffee and read the newspaper, smiled while she vacuumed, sent thank you cards, offered to help cut vegetables if ever invited to someone’s house for supper. I could see her, but she wasn’t me.
When I’d meet up with Serena after her shift, I always gulped my first drink with my eyes closed, so thirsty and restless and eager to shed my skin. In the bathroom we surveyed each other’s outfits and sprayed perfume to cover the garlic and butter smell from our hair. We agreed on names that fit our mood: she’d be Kimberly, a nanny who loved children and spent her time playing at the dog park, and I’d be Amber, a sex addict/flight attendant in town for the weekend. I imagined a big breasted version of myself with longer hair, wilder eyes, and shirts made out of bubble wrap. When I looked in the mirror I almost surprised myself by looking like me.
We had reached an odd place, full of almost-emotions. Almost angry. Almost heartbroken. Serena was still applying to graduate schools and me, I was lucky to be alive. I felt lucky to dance on tables and chase vodka with cherry popsicles. I felt lucky that there were bartenders to cut me off when I drank too much and bouncers to kick me out when I started fights with girls in the bathroom. And when strange men pinned me against the wall for a kiss, I reminded myself: lucky. But the doctor who stitched me up that night hadn’t used the word “lucky.” He only shook his head and said “Watch yourself.”
At work, things were slow. Everyone talked about the latest news story; a girl that worked at Pizza Hut had received a ten thousand dollar tip from a customer, a regular who wanted to help her go to college. We didn’t buy it. It was just an urban myth, a feel-good kind of story that surfaced every few years. It only served to make us bitter, all of our ten percent tips suddenly like tiny pin pricks. Even if the story were true, we decided that girl wouldn’t spend it on college. We knew her type. It’d be gone in one night, rounds of drinks bought for strangers after work. Bags of pot to last her for the rest of the year. Or maybe she’d spend it all at the racetrack, one missed Trifecta after another.
I worked whenever I could, anything to avoid hearing Nick and Serena through my bedroom wall. I’d gotten better at pretending to be someone else— a recovering alcoholic, a single mom, a part-time stripper—but also better at reading my tables. This is how it went: I’d straighten my apron, grab a handful of silverware, and wink at the hostess or the busboy or whoever was in my path. Once I got there, the rest came naturally. By the time I took the drink order, I’d already sized up everyone at the table. I guessed who had a sense of humor, who was paying, who was going to be high maintenance, and who needed a few drinks before they could loosen up. By the time the appetizer arrived, the table was in love with me and I was a little bit in love with them, too, just like you might love a stranger right before Last Call.
And I could do it with any table—a family with kids, a group of high school girls, an elderly couple. Once, I brought in the Magic 8 Ball to help an indecisive table decide between the Bay Seasoned Prawns or the Crab Dip. They loved it. It was a nice move, my coworkers agreed, and I made more money than anyone else that night. So I paid for the first round after work.
We all did what we had to do.
After work one night, after an hour-long meeting about meat temperatures and greeting our tables in thirty seconds or less, after we watched the night manager drive away and the other servers wander into the streets, we snuck back into the restaurant to drink. Nick had a key.
We turned on music, lowered the lights, and Nick poured shots from a dusty bottle of tequila he said the restaurant would never miss. It almost felt like being in a real bar instead of at work. Almost. For a while we didn’t say much, feeling the weight of all our tips at the bottom of our aprons. Then Serena told a story about her worst table of the night—the bachelorette party from hell that refused to pay their gratuity. Nick laced his fingers with hers and started to complain about his night but I was too agitated to listen. My story—a six top of cops with big hands and bad breath who left me their number instead of a tip—wasn’t anything new.
There wasn’t more than a pause before Serena began asking about the rent money again. I need more time, I said. She nodded like she understood. When Nick slapped a round of tequila shots in front of us, she finally stopped scowling.
The liquor store across the street turned out their lights and the night seemed darker then. Serena flirted with Nick and Nick poured us drinks, a little more in my glass than anyone else’s, I noticed. I tried to make an origami swan out of my cocktail napkin. I ate olives and cherries from behind the bar and sucked on orange slices that were meant for fancy drinks. Pieces of pulp wriggled out of my teeth with each swig. Really, I was drinking alone, straddling my bar stool while Nick and Serena whispered about the future: grad school, their relationship, jobs that didn’t involve wearing a uniform, apartments without room for a roommate.
Nick started to wipe down the bar while Serena and I collected the empty glasses. I swept under the booths and she wiped the tables with soda water. The three of us raised our glasses into the air one last time and I spilled most of my drink in my hair.
“Hey, I was thinking of some new names. What about Janine? Or Paulina?” I was hoping to make her smile. “I could be a rich heiress and you could be my clumsy cousin from Savannah.”
Nick chuckled but Serena glared at him.
“Or you could be a promising young English major with long, black hair and a fun but misguided roommate who doesn’t pay her rent.”
She stared down at the bar, her shoulders tensed as if bracing against a strong wind.
“You can be a stuck up waitress with a fuck head bartender boyfriend who writes bad poetry,” I added. “You can be the girl with so much promise who is doomed to wait tables forever.”
When she looked up at me, for the first time since I had known her, I couldn’t tell what she was thinking. There were about a hundred ways she could have hurt my feelings in return but she said only this: “Give it up. It’s time to move on.”
My lips were sore from the salt and lime, my vision blurred.
“I’m going to the bathroom,” I said. I covered my drink with a napkin and said “No Roofies.”
I didn’t wait for anyone’s response.
In the bathroom mirror, mascara had clumped in the corner of my eyes and
my hair looked like a thin layer of dust. Even my chest looked awkward, flattened by the buttons running down the front of the uniform. I thought about that night when Serena left me alone at that bar, before everything got so complicated. Sometimes I still thought I remembered parts of it. It would happen out of nowhere, a sliver of memory, a flash—my head resting on a sticky bar table or trying to light a cigarette, but dropping it on my arm, singeing a patch of blonde hair.
When Nick walked in, I jumped.
“Wrong bathroom, douche,” I said. I hoped it didn’t look like I was crying.
I hadn’t been, but I had thought about it, which seemed bad enough.
“We should get out of here. Time to close up,” he said. His eyes were bloodshot and he stood close enough for our arms to touch. The restaurant music still pumped into the bathroom, a song that had been popular the year before. I grabbed the counter to steady myself.
Another flash: twirling, my throat opening for a shot of something spicy, someone’s hand down my pants in a way that almost felt good, searching for Serena but falling instead.
Nick’s mouth formed an oval and as he put his hand on my hip, as the music shut off, as I bit the inside of my cheek, as my body started to respond, we heard Serena yelling for us out in the dining room.
“Shit,” I said. I meant “shit” about everything. Everything was shit. “She’s not mad,” he said. “She’s got bigger things.”
He leaned in and for just that second I thought I knew what it was like for Serena, all the empty space around her filled by someone else.
Nick left the bathroom before me and I walked home alone.
The next night, for the first time in months, I went out by myself, no one else there to watch me spin myself dizzy or catch me if I faltered. I introduced myself as Serena and gave every stranger I met a long hug. I even dressed up like her— black leggings, her oversized burgundy sweater, lots of silver bangle bracelets that sounded like jingle bells each time I moved my hands. I used all of that night’s tips to buy rounds for couples at the bar who looked like they were in love. And I even paid my own bar tab. But because I was still me, I also accepted strong drinks from twitchy men and sank all my leftover change into the jukebox, spending all of it before I realized the machine didn’t work.
When I got home, there was a stack of mail on the kitchen counter with a thick, large envelope addressed to Serena. It was from the grad school on the other side of
the world from us; she hadn’t opened it yet. An old vodka jug filled with withered dandelions sat on top of a handwritten note. “Wake me when you
get home,” it said in her loopy cursive.
Serena and Nick were in her bedroom, the door cracked so their voices drifted into the hall.
“God, I feel so old,” Serena whispered, almost breathless. “Yeah,” Nick said. “I guess this is it.”
Out on the balcony, I craned my neck to see through the gaps between row houses. The world sounded the same as every other night: traffic, car alarms, and the Shock Trauma helicopter filling the sky. It was all there, the abandoned buildings, the murky water, the saccharine light of Domino Sugar, all of it so constant I couldn’t imagine it ever changing.
After a while Serena joined me, her eyeliner smeared under her eyes like war paint and her pale skin blotchy. I handed her a mostly empty bottle of rum, the remains sloshing, dripping onto her feet. She took the bottle, but didn’t drink. It was almost morning and the sky opened up like a fresh wound.
“I meant to ask you earlier. The rent?” she asked.
“I’m really sorry,” I said. “I’ll get it. I’ll work extra shifts.”
Inside the apartment, our two year old “Happy Birthday” banner in the living room had fallen down on one side, a pile of letters spilling down the wall. She handed the bottle back to me and to show her I really meant to clean up my act, I rolled it back into the apartment, through the open balcony door, away from me. That’s it for me, I meant to say. It was a start, at least, the kind of drunken promise that girls like me sometimes made.
“Bad night?” she asked.
It hadn’t been but I nodded anyway. “Let’s vow to marry big tippers,” I said.
We both knew I wasn’t ever going to get married but we locked pinky fingers anyway, as if we had any idea what our futures would look like.
Then, a knock at the door. Three times. Loud. “Maybe it’s a cute boy,” I said.
“You better hurry before he runs away,” she said. In the alley below us, a car peeled out.
She’d once said that our lives—our exhausting, thrilling lives— begged for gratuity and even though I didn’t understand her, it sounded like the kind of thing that was probably true. Eventually she’d go back to her room where Nick was waiting, still in his shoes and apron, and I’d stand up to answer the door where there would be no one waiting at all. But for just a moment more, doused in the lights of the city, we stood there together, and it all tasted so sweet.
Penny Zang has an MFA from West Virginia University and teaches English at Greenville Technical College. Her work has appeared in Potomac Review, Pank, Iron Horse Literary Review, and other publications. She lives in Greenville, South Carolina with her husband and son.