milk and honey
She enters the room wearing the aura of heartbreak like a heavy perfume. It would be easy to peg her as perpetrator: tall, dark, and dangerously beautiful. A wildest dream made walking, talking flesh. But there is a hesitation in her step and an uncertainty to her poise that makes me wonder, ever so briefly, if she might not be victim instead.
The only eyes not riveted to her are so far gone with drink the sight would be wasted anyway. She glides toward me and takes the center stool at the bar. It was the best seat in the house until she sat down, now the best seats are anywhere with a view of her.
I put down the toddy glass I had been polishing the bejesus out of, buying time for charm and eloquence to kick in. I turn to her with my best smile, settling for coherence.
"Welcome to Milk and Honey. My name is Sasha, this is my bar."
* * * * *
I don't know her but I know her type. Sufficiently curious to brave a dyke bar, but circumspect enough to seek out the exclusivity of mine. Women like her come to sit, watch, and drown in over-strong cocktails the dawning realization that their curiosity is, in fact, a compulsion. Women like her pay the rent here.
That she's here at all means she was referred. Mine is a private establishment. It is, from the outside, as unobtrusive in this rundown Chinatown side street as the walnut-paneled inside is contrarian. There's no secret knock, no password, no sliding-door peephole, yet the bar is still a throwback to the speakeasies of the Jazz Age. Meaning, that one of my esteemed patrons not only cracked the fašade of this serious, serious woman but deemed it necessary to slip her my card as well.
Her left hand cups my own briefly as she lights a cigarette from the steady flame of my Zippo. As she leans back, I see the tension begin to melt away, the familiar ritual of smoking offsetting her trepidation. She smiles slightly, causing me to fumble the lighter back into my pocket.
"Can I get you something to drink?"
"What do you suggest?" Her voice rolls over me low and smooth.
Sex on the Beach, a Slippery Nipple, a Slow Comfortable Screw. I wonder what colors she would blush if I voiced these thoughts. "Well, depends on what you like. The house special is a White Russian."
"White Russian..." She makes the connection and blushes a charming dusky rose. "I'll have one then."
I turn away from her to chip ice from the large block in my sink. "It's a nice pun but it's not completely true. I'm only part Russian, and only part white." I glance over my shoulder and catch her staring, mesmerized, at the pick in my hand as I maul the ice block. "I'm Russian-Jewish-Irish-Catholic-Brazilian-Chinese to be exact. So don't get lippy with any bigoted remarks because chances are you'll offend me." I give her a lopsided smile to underscore my jest.
"I wouldn't worry too much about that, Sasha. My adopted parents are Mexican." Her eyes follow the fist-sized chunk I drop into a stainless steel shaker. "Is there a reason why you don't use regular ice cubes?"
"Block ice is denser than cube ice and chips less when I shake it. It gets the drink cold without watering it down. Your friendly neighborhood watering hole, on the other hand, probably uses machine ice. More air than ice really. It melts too fast and ruins the drink. Excuse me for a moment." I shake the canister for all it's worth.
"Bartending is a lost art. I know it sounds self-serving to say so, but it's true." I gesture to the shelves of liquor behind me. "I carry fourteen different kinds of rum to make sixty-eight different rum cocktails. Some would call it obsession."
I watch anxiously as she takes a delicate sip from her drink. Her lips twitch into a very sexy smile. "Oh this is excellent."
I release the breath I've been unconsciously holding. Vindication and satisfaction envelop me like an old, favored blanket. "The second one's even better."
* * * * *
She's laughing now at a joke I can't even remember telling, so lost and captivated am I by the lights dancing across her dark, dark hair. This is her natural state I realize: warm, relaxed, steadfastly focused on our conversation. Long elegant fingers bring a cocktail glass to her lips. Her third? Her fourth? I've lost count.
"What if I want to take my martini like James Bond? Shaken but not stirred."
"Martinis should always be served stirred, never shaken. Shaking bruises the gin."
"You can bruise gin?"
"Easily. Gin is made with juniper berries, which are very delicate. Bruised gin tastes like rubbing alcohol."
"So you're saying that James Bond has been doing it wrong all these years."
I shrug my shoulders. "Maybe that's how secret agents drink martinis, but normal folk like us should stick to stirred."
There's a slight tightening at the corner of her mouth. "Well, I guess I'll take one stirred then."
* * * * *
As politely as possible I steer her toward a diet coke instead of another martini. I hate to imagine the dangerous looks I've been flashing to keep the hungry women at bay going for naught the moment my beautiful friend steps out of the bar.
"Milk and Honey. That's a Biblical reference, is it not?"
"Yes. Several mentions, but my favorite is Deuteronomy. 'The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.'"
"It's such a sensual name, not at all what you would expect for a bar. But it's appropriate and beautiful too, a good name for a place for women to gather."
I blush at the compliment, my pulse racing a little faster. I use the Biblical line all the time, mainly for its effect on women. It makes me seem sophisticated and smart and I am usually quick to press that advantage. I surprise myself with a truthful admission: "It's a safe haven, my little oasis in a cruel, harsh world. No judgments, no demands, no closets, no histories. Just a quiet little out of the way place where you can be whoever you want to be, even yourself."
She smiles at that. "It's exactly what I need."
* * * * *
I am drawn to the way her lips move when she speaks, the way she enunciates every word. I can almost picture that exquisite tongue of hers rolling over each syllable, loving it thoroughly before releasing it. For a moment I close my eyes and imagine her lips, her tongue, and all the manners of loving I would bestow on them just to hear that perfect cadence of hers slurred with desire.
"I'm putting you to sleep." Her tone is playful, not reproachful.
Thinking quickly, I fib, "No, not at all. I was just imagining New Orleans the way you describe it. I've never seen it outside Mardi Gras."
"You and the rest of the world," she laughs. "No, New Orleans is so much more than Bourbon Street, parades, and plastic beads. It has a wonderfully rich history and intense spirituality."
"Streets full of topless women and bottomless booze aren't so bad one week out of every year." I flash her my most rakish smile.
"And here I thought you ran a respectable establishment."
I can tell she's not buying my Lothario act one bit. In truth, I'm enjoying the easy banter between us far more than the potential payoff of padding my reputation. I get the feeling that prowess in the bedroom is not so high on her list of priorities. "I love the concept of Mardi Gras. Fat Tuesday, one last day of frivolity and decadence before the seriousness of Lent. I love the melding of cultures, beliefs, and traditions. I love the irony that people put on masks to do the things that stem from the deepest, neediest, most primal parts of themselves."
Her eyes grow distant. "I've lived in both New York City and D.C. but neither come close to the vibrancy and energy of New Orleans. There's a balance between life and death and an indigenous belief that the two are intertwined, and in some ways the same. And that awareness, I think, allows the people there to be more respectful and honest about reconciling the things they see with the things they feel."
"You sound like you miss it. Plan on moving back anytime soon?"
She hesitates, shoulders tensing slightly. "It's come up at work. Dana thinks..." Her voice trails off. The aura of heartbreak comes back and strong. "We'll see, I suppose."
I make a big show out of rearranging the glassware behind the counter. In part because I want to give her some time to collect herself, mostly because I need a moment to process this new information. That she's out of sorts over a woman is no surprise to me. What fills me with dread is the twinge I feel deep in my chest when she finally gives voice to her.
* * * * *
"Your ice is almost gone."
"It does that, you know. Block ice melts slower but it still melts."
"Oh really? I thought your quest for the perfect drink would have solved that little problem by now." Her tone is light and teasing.
"I'm working on it."
"Can you show me? I mean, I wouldn't want you to divulge trade secrets but I am curious to see your magic icemaker."
My heart skips a beat, caught off-guard by the request. I try to quell the tremor of anticipation as I reply. "It's in the back room. I'd be happy to show you."
The back room of my bar is small, made even smaller by the stacks of boxes lining the walls. In the far corner, I keep a small desk for accounting and next to it sits my industrial-sized Sub-Zero. I lead her there and pull open the heavy refrigerator door.
She presses up against me to peer in. Then turning to me with a shiver she smiles. "This is incredible."
She's so close, and it's so easy. I lean forward and capture her lips with mine. Her hands move up to my chest and I moan into the kiss. I step forward to close the gap between us and it takes me a moment to register the resistance, my progress impeded by the firm touch of her hands tensing to push me away. I allow her to retreat, waves of shame, regret, and disappointment washing over me in rapid succession.
"I- I don't..." Uncharacteristically, I stammer and look away.
"Sasha." Her voice is soft but unwavering. I look up and into eyes dark with compassion and concern. It breaks my heart.
I hold her gaze and find my voice. "I must apologize. It seems my instincts have circumvented my judgment."
"Sasha, if..." I stop her with a finger to her lips.
"If is enough. More than I deserve, actually." I smile to let her know everything is okay.
She smiles back because we both know it isn't.
* * * * *
She orders one more diet coke before closing out her tab. She hands me her gold American Express card and excuses herself to use the restroom. I run my fingers over the raised plastic of her name. Monica Reyes. It hurts that I have to get it from her credit card. I contemplate not charging her at all, but enter the full amount anyway. The gesture would not be lost on her, and Lord knows I've made things awkward enough with my assumptions.
When she returns, I note with satisfaction that her eyes seem clear and her walk steady. Let it not be said that I am derelict in my bartending obligations. She signs the receipt and slides it back toward me.
"It's been a pleasure." Her smile is genuinely affectionate.
"The pleasure was all mine." I manage with only a trace of regret.
She turns and makes her way out of the bar without looking back, leaving in her wake a sensationless void. Moments pass before the colors and textures and noise of the bar flow slowly back into that space. It's a tainted whole, with the appearance and characteristics of sufficiency, but achieved at the expense of diluting perfection.
I remember the block of ice melting in the sink and make my way to the back room to replenish it.
* * * * *
* * * *
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