I sip my drink, wishing that the bar used real martini glasses. Something classy, like the set we have at home. Celebrations should be served “up,” instead of in opaque plastic cups. But for a martini at a gay bar, on pride weekend, after marching our rainbow army through the streets, it's better than expected.
“Too much vermouth?” the bartender asks, smiling, yelling over the thumpa thumpa. He has a lip ring and a dimple on his left cheek.
“I learned from a guy who bar-tended for the Rat Pack in Vegas. Sammy and Frank said he made the best martinis they ever had.” His mouth widens, stretching his lip ring to the right.
I nod to show I'm paying attention, and sip my drink with a smile, but I keep my distance.
“My name's Rodney,” he says, extending a hand. A rainbow bracelet droops from his wrist and a dragon's head peeks from his skin, beneath his shirt sleeve. I shake his hand. I tell him my name and we chit-chat about the parade and about the sub-zero temperature outside, and he asks if I'm alone. I point to my friends on the dance floor.
“I don't dance,” I tell him.
“So how do you impress guys?”
I shrug. “Haven't had to for six years.”
“Oh. Congratulations.” Rodney smiles, but it's fake. He knows I can tell. “Excuse me,” he says, leaving me and my Rat Pack martini to make drinks at the other end of the bar.
It's early, but the crowd swells, and I watch Rodney work. His hips are a pendulum, zipping back-and-forth. He makes drinks the same way everyone else dances: fast and perfect. I see him mouth words with the songs. He pinches the front of his shirt, pulling on it to air his chest. When he turns to deliver change for a twenty, we make eye contact. His lip ring stretches again, and he moves on to the next customer. He pours the next drink. Three bottles at once. He glances my way as an indigo-colored liquid strains into a shot glass. It's quickly consumed. The wasted art. From the same metal shaker Rodney pours a green liquid into a second glass. He sets the shot in front of me. I ask about the sudden color change.
“It's a good night for magic.”
“I don't believe in magic.”
“Even on Pride weekend?” His eyes search mine.
Out of his view, beneath the bar counter, I touch the ring on my finger. It hasn't been re-sized in the years that I've had it. Easily, it could slip off and get lost. “This is my first time,” I tell him.
“Well, I'm proud of you for coming out tonight.” As he walks away, his lips part, exposing a sliver of teeth. Pride is in the details. It's unsafe for a committed man to find this attractive.
Over the next two hours, slowly, content, I sip my neon shot. The taste of melon liqueur and something rank. A twist of citric acid. I taste Rodney each time it drips across my tongue, and I watch his technique behind the bar. Never a drop spilled. Nothing wasted. To be sure, he samples the mixtures with a stirrer straw, nodding his perfection to no one.
While my friends dance, and the bar fills, I see the stack of scrap paper in a basket beside me disappear throughout the night. I watch. Phone numbers written and handed out. Then a final scrap. One last phone number. Rodney sweeps past.
I could say yes and order another drink.
I could nod and smile and say I'm fine.
Instead, I ask him for a pen.
A third generation storyteller, J. Thomas Meador was born in West Virgina, but now lives in Asheville, North Carolina with his daughter -- a judgmental cat named Wednesday. For a while, he studied screenwriting in California, before returning to the East Coast and prose.