Men Who Buy Me Drinks at Bars

by

05/18/2024

Neighborhood: East Village, Greenpoint, Upper West Side

ROUND ONE: JAY

Walking out of the crowd, my ears are still ringing. It’s late. I’m more than tipsy, but I haven’t felt tired in hours. I bounce down the stairs that lead from the East Village dance floor and head to the bar. There, I shift my weight around on the balls of my feet in my black knee-high high-heeled boots. I love my boots. I love that they match my beat-up black leather jacket. My phone’s been stolen from the pocket of that jacket, but I don’t know it yet. Or maybe it’s about to be stolen? Who knows? Right now, the biggest problem tonight is that there’s no one to make out with.

The friends I came with are sucking on each other’s faces back on the dance floor. I might be happy for them if my own prospects weren’t so limited. So far tonight, I’ve found that a girl playing the third wheel is like blood in the water to men at bars. They circle you. Flock like vultures to splayed out roadkill. I rejected a man in a polo shirt and glasses only for him and his lackey to tail me around the dance floor. Another guy, snuck up behind me and tried to grab whatever was in reach. At least the sixty-year-old gave up quickly.

I wonder if they know I’m looking for someone to kiss or if they even care. What do they think when my friends come up for air and twirl me to the other side of our huddle, creating a human shield? I wonder if the desire to “be wanted” by me has flashed through their mind at all tonight. Or are they simply looking to win?

At the bar, I’m searching for an opening when Jay, who’s young and not unattractive, practically appears out of thin air. “Yeah, let’s do it. I’m buying your drink,” Jay tells me and himself, as if he’s only just decided. I don’t find the line especially endearing, but it keeps me from feeling threatened.

Being non-threatening will get you pretty far.

After we order, I see that Jay does not need another whiskey sour. He’s swaying back and forth and jumbling his words. He struggles to find his card, let alone put it down. The only thing he doesn’t mangle is conveying exactly how attractive he finds me. “You’re so hot. SO fucking hot.” He’s emphatic. That’s nice. I struggle to avoid a maternal, patronizing tone with my “thank you.” I know I look good tonight and pass the test of what he’s looking for. Female. Available. Big boobs.

One of my friends wanders over and raises an eyebrow from the other side of the room. “You good?” he mouths. He’s whispered the phrase a lot tonight. I respond with a nod. I’m not comfortable or satisfied, but I’m fine. Nothing’s scared me. No one’s crossed a line I can’t handle. No one’s tried anything others haven’t tried before. And Jay, the man of the moment, is harmless. Instinctually, I just know it. I think about kissing him, so I’ll have something to do once my friends resume their flirtation. It’s been a while since I kissed someone. Long enough that I consider doing it just to prove I can.

Then, I catch a whiff of his breath and know I can’t. I could, I guess, but I won’t.

Jay requests me on Instagram. When he asks me to accept him, I lie and say my phone died. I know I won’t be seeing Jay again, no matter how hot he thinks I am. After a few more pleasantries, I tell him I’ll find him later and reunite with my friends. The duo I gave the brush to earlier pop out of the shadows. I ignore them, instead grinding with a queer friend group I just met. It’ll pass the time.

ROUND TWO: AARON

Everything about Aaron makes my skin crawl, but since I’m trapped at the bar with him, I’m doing my best to find a redeeming quality. Aaron is in his thirties, thinks he’s hilarious and that every other sentence qualifies as a “teachable moment.” We’ve met several times, but he doesn’t remember my name. He works in “the industry” and has spent a good portion of tonight arguing that coworkers can successfully date. Before I leave tonight, he’ll ask what I’m doing over the long weekend. When I say I’m staying in town, he says, “Oh, so I’ll see you then!” He won’t.

Right now, we’re at the bar our mutual friend rented for her birthday party on the Upper West Side, and I’m about to order a glass of the house white. I wouldn’t have come over alone if I knew Aaron had just ordered, but he was standing in my blind spot. At first, his eyes glaze over when I tell him I’m a writer. When I say I wrote a romance novel about queer high school girls, he loses interest completely. Ten minutes later though, he’s either forgotten or assumes I’m bisexual, because my fictional lesbian protagonists aren’t deterring his efforts in the slightest.

He tells me he doesn’t care about writing, even though he does it all the time. Apparently, he can’t stop writing, despite thinking little of it as a profession. He asks me questions without waiting to hear the answers. Even if he were listening, I get the sense he’s incapable of comprehending anything he doesn’t want to hear.

There was a time, not too long ago, when I wouldn’t have accepted a drink from Aaron. Days when I thought letting a date buy me a meal, a drink, or a collectible bobblehead (on one memorable occasion) meant I owed them something. I’ll give you one guess what that something was. I protested and pushed and forced my credit card into the hands of many a waiter and barista to keep some semblance of control, in denial of the fact I never had it in the first place. Even when you split the check, say exactly what you mean and like the guy, you can still get screwed the wrong way. All the times I didn’t like the guy and didn’t want to go all the way, paying for my own drink did nothing to stop their entitlement. Or my guilt.

I can already imagine Aaron replying to my “no” with “are you sure” and “come on.” It’s as if he’s capable of X-ray vision, and I have telepathy. He sees through my clothes and I hear what he thinks as he does it. It’s nice to have someone look at you with longing and lust if it doesn’t leave you feeling cheap. And flat. Like a poster hung on the ceiling of a teenage boy’s bedroom.

When Aaron offers to pay for my wine, I accept. I don’t encourage him, but I saw it coming. Aaron has free will, after all. My body isn’t a commodity to be bought, so the drink he offers me doesn’t necessitate a return. Right? I feel a little slimy sipping my drink, but not nearly enough to offer him my phone number. The Aarons of the world have every right to think what they will about me, after all. I can’t control that.

But I can save my $20.

ROUND THREE: MIKE

At a tiny Irish dive in Greenpoint, I order a Budweiser to celebrate my first day at a new job. This job is a big get for me, even though it’ll likely mean long hours. The start of a new era. Work let out earlier than I thought, but too late to make plans. On my long walk to the subway, I rack my brain for a way to savor the moment. I’m just not ready to go home yet.

That’s when I saw it. Green painted brick, kitschy holiday decorations, and a sign promising of $2 jello shots. Inside were regulars, all middle-aged and mostly men. The kind you imagine gathering at a motorcycle convention or working on docks. Amid this portrait of male toughness, hang old-fashioned Christmas lights. When my bartender hands me my pint and tells me the price is $3. I can’t believe my luck. Before I can reach for my wallet, she stops me to say, “It’s on him.”

That’s how I meet Mike, who is sitting to my right. He’s been trying to cut down on his drinking since he turned 50, but I get the sense he lives at this place. He and his friend seem to know everyone in the bar except the bartender. I wonder if she’s new. Mike’s clearly a talker. He tells me he used to do research on Wall Street and asks what I “aspire to” in my career. Do I think this new job will help me get there? What kind of writer do I want to be? He says he hopes he inspires some of my writing. “When you hit it big, tell them the book is dedicated to Mike, that guy who bought me a drink once. Who was kind to me.” I laugh but then stop short, wondering if he’s serious. He promises several times he will leave and “stop bothering” me, but he doesn’t. Instead, he sings a few verses when “Ring of Fire” comes on over the speakers. He says he saw Johnny Cash sing it live.

“I come here to get invigorated,” Mike tells me in reference to why he bought me a drink. I understand what he means. There’s something about strangers. People older or younger than you. An unexpected conversation there’s nothing to be lost or gained from. Even at the end of his night, there’s something I find a little invigorating about Mike.

Finally, Mike’s friend insists they leave. He hands the bartender a ten-dollar bill and makes an (almost) tasteful boob joke about his first impression of her. She doesn’t seem to mind, so I laugh with her. As Mike says goodbye to the other regulars, his friend Connor introduces himself. I feel like I’ve been welcomed into their mismatched chosen family. The man on my left, in charge of the bar’s music selection, tells me that everyone likes Mike. He’s never heard a bad word about him. I listen as I finish my beer.

Mike’s parting words to me are, “I hope you achieve everything you aspire to in your career.” What a weighty wish to impart on a stranger, even if you did pay for her drink. The statement seems specific and kind beyond necessity or convention. It reminds me of my aspirations. I put down my glass and push off the barstool feeling seen instead of appraised.

I don’t owe him anything in return – not my well wishes, my thoughts, or a dedication, and yet…
Mike, this one’s for you.

***

Sophia Mazzella is a writer of nonfiction, fiction, and screenplays. A born and raised New Yorker, she briefly swapped cities to earn a BA in Cinema and Media Studies from the University of Southern California. She currently works as a television producer’s assistant in Greenpoint. Her nonfiction work can be found in Byline, 20 to Life Magazine, and on her Substack, “preface to my memoirs.” 

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