“I don’t know how you stand that place,” Cindy said, as she sat down in her chair and turned on her computer.
“What’s wrong with Scooters? ” asked Ruth, as she leaned against Cindy’s filing cabinet.
Cindy sipped from her coffee mug before answering.
“What does it have going for it? It’s just a trendy bar full of pimply adolescents with attitude.”
“And the music is terrible.”
“How is it worse than Gabby’s or the Corral? ” These were the bars Cindy and Ruth had frequented since Ruth joined Livingston Insurance, three years ago.
“At least they have appropriate men,” Cindy responded. Ruth crossed her arms.
“You mean bald guys with wedding rings in their pockets? ”
“At least I don’t end up alone spending my own money,” Cindy replied, as she got up to replenish her coffee.
It was Cindy who had told her about Scooters in the first place, Ruth thought, as she walked back to her desk. They had gone to Scooters on the advice of Cindy’s younger stepsister. All night Cindy had grimaced at the thump, thump, thump of the dance music and rolled her eyes at the young men who strutted by them without pausing. Cindy had vowed never to go back to Scooters again.
Ruth, however, continued to go on her own, much to Cindy’s annoyance. In the first hour or so, Ruth would sip on a club soda, perched at the side of the bar near the stairway. She absorbed the glances of disinterest but still felt part of the ever-increasing, pulsing beat, as the bar breathed her in and out. She would watch people as they climbed the stairs, found friends, ordered drinks. When she felt herself slipping, cramped in her role of spectator, she let herself order a real drink. But only after she had been there for one hour. That was her rule.
Sometimes, late in the evening, a man Ruth’s age would approach her, his face faltering from encounters with young women who’d shrugged him off rudely. Ruth would chat for a few moments, relieved to talk to someone, her eyes eventually straying to the young men surrounding her.
Sometimes, very rarely, someone younger came over, or casually smiled as he cruised by. Ruth would savour these moments, keep them like gifts to be unwrapped later in the privacy of her bedroom
Ruth tried to figure it out the next time she was at Scooters; she surveyed the males scattered around the bar as she sat and tapped her foot to the beat of the music. But it wasn’t just the men who attracted her to the place. Both the men and the women looked freshly baked, as if they had just emerged from the oven: fragrant, soft, and edible. Their faces looked so smooth that, if you touched them, you might feel the warm life rising against their skin. They looked strong and large and assured, moving among each other like first-borns, the dismal disappointments they felt only a faint shadow edging toward them.
Ruth had to have this…this thing they possessed. She could smell it, hear it in the tone and pitch of their voices. She could feel it getting nearer to her as the night progressed, sliding over her skin. If she stuck around long enough she could get it…some of it…enough of it.
She ambled over to the small bar by the pool tables, ordered herself her third cocktail, and slugged the drink back carelessly. Prowling was the best part of the evening. She wandered around the bar, music beating through her, anaesthetized to those who looked past her. She gave thanks that she had taxied it down, although she had intended to drive. She battled with herself each time she came here, unable to admit in advance that she might get—would need to get—completely hammered.
She staggered into a woman sitting in a high-back chair. After apologizing profusely, Ruth hung around the group of friends for a few minutes. They watched a foursome of men play pool, and caught each other’s eye as they admired the lean bodies bent over the table. After a while, Ruth found herself sitting at the small bar in the corner, feeling the bartender’s arm brush her breasts as he passed people drinks. Eventually, she went to the washroom, fumbling with her zipper and tights, reapplying her bronze lipstick with her face held close to the mirror.
She exited the washroom, sauntered up to the dance floor, and danced by herself. She staggered around, eyes half closed. As the dance floor became crowded, she jostled shoulder to shoulder with the other patrons, almost one of the crowd, until she was dizzy and thirsty and needed a drink.
She plunked herself down on a stool at the main bar and ordered herself another cocktail. The bartender informed her it was last call.
“Christ, it must be two o’clock.” Last time she remembered looking it was eleven-thirty. The lights flickered on and off to signal that the bar was closing.
Ruth did not recall going downstairs to the coat check, although she must have, because she had her leather jacket on when she fell. She remembered leaving and being jogged along by the bustling mass of inebriated youth. She brushed against a burly, dark-haired bouncer, who held the door open into the damp winter evening. She took two steps past the door and tripped.
Ruth fell, smashing her elbow noisily on a metal garbage can as she arced down, unprotected, thumping her head on the concrete. Ruth felt hands on either side of her arms, pulling her up. She shrieked, and was dropped back onto the pavement. Ruth lay there in the slush, bare hands embracing the sidewalk as she licked her lip and recognized the metallic taste of blood. Her head throbbed. Her right elbow burned with pain, her breath coming out in quick, white puffs.
She heard a man swear, then another male voice mumble a response.
After a few seconds, one of the voices said, “Get up.”
“Try harder,” a second voice added. “We can all see your skinny ass.”
Ruth slowly inched her knees under her. She could feel the dampness from the pavement soaking through to her shins. When she was in a kneeling position, she pushed herself up with the palm of her left hand. For a moment she saw the shadowy figures of the bouncers through her hair: one dark blur and a taller, blond smear. She brushed her hair out of her eyes, and her hand came away streaked with blood. She started to gag. She threw up, splattering herself as she leaned over the curb into the street.
“Man, she’s chucked up all over.”
Ruth tried to slow her breathing now that the heaving had stopped. Her deep exhales evolved into a ragged whimper, as she tried to edge away from her vomit, seeing the world sideways as stragglers from the bar came out onto the street.
“Who’s this? ” asked a third voice, from beyond of Ruth’s view.
“Some drunk hag.”
“Well, get her out of here. Grab her wallet, see where she lives, and dump her in a cab.”
A thick arm began groping around under her body. The fingers casually pinched her breast, and Ruth grunted and tried to move away. She felt something unravel and be pulled out from under her. Her purse. The person stood up and shoved her with his foot.
“Fuck, she stinks.”
It was quiet for a moment.
“‘Ruth Daniels,’” a voice said.
“I think she’s hurt. Should we call an ambulance or somethin’? ”
“No way. She can sober up and take care of herself in the morning. Just make sure she doesn’t come back.”
Later, Ruth remembered screaming once as they hauled her into the cab. She’d passed out for most of the ride.
Ruth was prodded awake by a jabbing pain in her elbow and by the pressure of her bladder. She kicked off her black duvet, trying to untangle herself from the twisted, pinstriped sheets. She stumbled to the bathroom, holding her sore arm, shoved her skirt and tights down, and urinated with relief.
After a few moments, she heaved herself up off the toilet and staggered over to the sink. She looked up into the mirror as she leaned on the counter with her good arm.
“Oh my God.”
Ruth turned her face to the left and the image in the gold rectangular mirror moved to the right. She nodded her head slowly up and down, and so did the reflection. In the image, mascara racooned around puffy eyes. Blood fanned out into her hair from a gash at her hairline. Ruth’s eyes travelled down to the swollen mouth, where blood oozed from a split in her bottom lip. She touched the mirror with her fingers, outlining the grime fingerprinted along her neck, trailing down to the dirt encrusting the twisted folds of her metallic top.
Ruth averted her gaze from the mirror. She stuck her hands underneath the tap, careful of her sore arm, and watched the running water wash away the rusty stains on her skin.
It took her a long time to take off her clothes: the tights with holes in the knees, the miniskirt that smelled of vomit, the lamé shirt that was wrapped sideways around her torso. Every few minutes, Ruth would sit down on the toilet lid, her head between her knees to prevent herself from passing out or throwing up. She stepped out of her underwear, trying not to use her right arm or bend and get a head rush. She clawed at the hooks of her bra with her one hand, catching glimpses of herself in the mirror. She looked animalistic: her teeth bared, the whites of her eyes moon-like.
She stepped gingerly into the shower and felt the warm spray hit her body. She grunted as the water wet the cuts on her face. She stood there hunched against the pain, wishing the water could clean her from the inside out, wash away her loneliness. She squeezed the pink bar of soap and it spurted out from her grip. She made a grab for it and missed, her body colliding with the white and black tiles, then sliding to the bottom of the tub. Ruth crouched under the spray and started to cry, her left hand holding on to the captured but dissolving soap.
Ruth fell asleep on her couch. When she woke up, squinting at the sun, she could barely move her right arm. She unwrapped the towel from around her head. It was ringed with blood. She wanted to call her sister for a ride to the hospital, but she knew Marie would freak out if she saw her like this. Marie probably couldn’t get a babysitter for the boys on such short notice anyway. Cindy was an option, but they hadn’t really gone out together since Ruth starting frequenting Scooters. Ruth dialed a taxi.
Four hours later, she returned home with her arm in a sling, her head bandaged, and her purse crammed with antibiotic lotions. She left a message on her manager’s voice mail, saying she would be off work for a week with a chipped elbow and head injuries. She also left a hesitant message for Cindy, telling her she had fallen down at Scooters and would try to phone her in a couple of days.
Ruth floated through the week, walking around in an old terry cloth bathrobe, ignoring the phone and letting the mail pile up. She sprawled on her black leather sofa, losing herself in trashy books and afternoon soap operas. She ate wherever she was—pudding, toast, bananas, potato chips—leaving bowls on the stereo and plates on her black wooden CD holder. Newspapers littered her coffee table and mugs multiplied around the room, finding homes under her bed and on the Mexican rug beside the couch.
Time was amorphous; she would wake up at 3 A.M., turn on the television, and grab a fashion magazine, trying to work up enough energy to make a pot of coffee, which she would drink through a straw. Every once in a while she would catch a glimpse of herself in the corner of a mirror: flannel pyjamas askew, hair pasted back with clips, face bruised, eyes unfocused
Ruth arrived at work early on the following Monday. Despite several layers of makeup, her face was still visibly discoloured and swollen, the antennae of stitches protruding from the uncovered cut at her hairline. She hung up her coat and skulked over to her desk, trying to camouflage her sling with the loose fabric of her ivory wool outfit. A pile of unopened mail lay in a mound of manila, cream, and white envelopes on her desk. She reached around the pile and turned on her computer; she had fifty-seven E-mails and eighteen phone messages.
She had just managed to wedge a notepad on top of her knee, so she could write without moving her injured elbow, when she saw a coat being hung on the rack. Cindy’s head appeared from behind the black velour fabric.
Ruth smiled, even though smiling hurt her lip. Cindy backed up a half step, shaking her head slightly as if to clear the image. Ruth looked away and grabbed an envelope randomly from her pile, slashing it open with her left hand. The contents spilled out onto her desk. As she retrieved the papers, she sensed Cindy beside her.
“How you doing? ”
After a pause, Cindy said, “I got your message.”
“Anything I can do for you? ”
“No. I’m fine. Really.”
There was another pause.
“Well, I’d better be getting back to my desk.”
“Yell if you need anything.”
Ruth nodded and glanced up at her co-worker. Cindy’s thin red lips parted in a smile; her eyes were narrowed in concern, and something else—distaste, censure, mockery—Ruth wasn’t sure.
As Cindy backed away, Ruth could see the mail cart pulling up in the aisle.
God, she wasn’t ready to speak to anyone else.
“Rough week? ” Paul said, as he passed her an elasticized packet of mail.
“You could say that.” Ruth coughed out a small laugh as she looked up at his lean frame.
Paul usually worked in the mailroom in the summer. He had finished his university degree early, so he was filling in at Livingston while he looked for permanent work.
“Actually, I fell coming out of Scooters.”
“The bar down on Weyman? ” Paul’s grey eyes looked over at her.
“Yeah. Do you know it? ”
“Uh-huh. I’ve been there a couple of times.”
“You have? ”
“Yeah, it’s not bad. Has a pretty good happy hour.” He laughed, showing a row of orthodontically straightened teeth.
Ruth cleared her throat.
“Are there lots of bars like Scooters? ”
“Tons,” Paul said. He leaned gracefully over his cart to grab Cindy’s bundle of mail. “I can name a dozen bars like that my friends go to.”
There was a pause.
“Excellent,” Ruth said with a smile, her lip cracking from the unhealed cut.