I stood with my arms resting on the bar, waiting for my customers’ drinks to be made so that I could deliver them. Not appearing to be in any rush, the bartender caught my eye and rested his arms on the bar, lightly touching mine.
‘How’re you doing?’ he asked with an endearing head-tilt as his bright blue eyes drilled holes into me.
‘I’m good.’ I faltered, my mind seeming to have gone blissfully blank.
‘What’re you up to tonight after work?’ he asked as he scratched his neck under his dark beard.
‘Um, nothing?’ It appeared that I was now incapable of speaking in complete sentences. He was weaving a spell into his voice and I got a drowning feeling from looking into his eyes.
‘Well, I have some plans that would be a lot more enjoyable if they included you,’ he said quietly. He pushed off the bar and winked at me before turning away to continue making drinks.
‘Okay,’ was all I could say as I turned away as well, my hand knocking a wine glass and spilling red wine and shards of glass across the bar. I looked at the wine stain on my white shirt and blushed before disappearing into the kitchen to hide and clean myself up. There was no small voice in my head telling me that it probably wasn’t the best idea to go out after work on a mystery adventure with a bartender that I barely knew but who had spent three weeks flirting with me. Considering what happened last time, there really should have been. I remembered the drinks and returned to the bar to get them. The bartender caught my eye and smiled. His spell was highly effective. I smiled back and placed a hand on the bar and into the pool of red wine no one had cleaned up yet. Of course I would be going out with him after work. I would go anywhere he asked me to.
I had only one word to describe him. Enchanting. Everything he did beckoned me to him, and my body was dragged in his direction, whether I wanted to go or not. He had a pull over me, and it somehow clouded my mind and pacified the small voice in my head that should have been ringing the danger bell. I would be polishing glasses at the bar and he would look at me and I would feel myself twirling my hair with my finger and pushing my chest out in an attempt to impress him. When he spoke to me I would look him in the eye and wet my lips, unable to stop my face spreading into a smile.
I would spend shifts working with him in a haze, like there was a pink fog settled over the restaurant, or I was wearing permanent rose-coloured glasses. I would giggle and lose my train of thought. I would make excuses to go near the bar so that I could catch his eye and he could wink at me and I would trip over nothing. I would roll my eyes as if he were the cheesiest person alive, while mentally undressing him and wondering how his lips would feel on my skin. Everything he said was the funniest joke I had ever heard and he smelt like a meadow on a summer’s day.
‘You better be ready for what I have planned after work,’ he murmured as I moved past him in the bar and I think I stopped breathing. He laughed at my expression and put his hands on my hips, squeezing as he walked behind me and I missed the glass and poured post mix onto the floor. My body was humming with excitement and I couldn’t concentrate.
‘This isn’t what I ordered,’ one of the other waiters said to him as they bought a tray of drinks back.
His attention snapped away from me and I felt lost, as if I were adrift in the ocean with no land in sight. I crossed my arms over myself against the chill.
‘Yes, it is.’
‘No, I wanted an iced coffee, not an iced chocolate. It says so right here on the docket,’ the waiter said, pushing the docket towards him.
‘Do you know that I’ve probably made like five hundred drinks tonight? Do you know how difficult it is when you all put in orders for drinks at the same time, and I have like five people wanting to be served at the bar?’ My bartender didn’t look so perfect now. He was drawing himself up, growing taller by the second and his eyes were turning wild. His soft voice was turning into a growl and coarse hair was sprouting around his neck and chest, standing on end like the impressive hackles of a wolf. He towered over the waiter, who was now looking at the ground and cowering.
‘Make your own goddamn iced coffee!’ the bartender roared, now more beast than man, and the waiter nodded and quickly moved away, still averting his gaze.
‘How’s your night, babe?’ he asked me, suddenly turning back to normal and winking at me with that lopsided grin.
I blushed and giggled, twirling away from him (and into the path of a customer), feeling like I was floating on air. He called me babe!
I am generally not prone to this kind of behaviour. I am the cautious type. I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t take drugs or smoke cigarettes, and I don’t have one-night stands. I don’t like surprises or being out of my comfort zone. A guy winking at me is normally a huge turn off. Like, how cheesy can you be? But bartenders have this magic that makes their eyes sparkle and the rest of the world fall away so you are transfixed, hypnotized by their gaze and their words slide like silk down your back and sit warm across your chest. I was sure he was trouble, but I was also sure that I didn’t care.
‘Are you ready to go?’ he asked me around 10:30pm, when the bar was finally clean and the customers were gone.
‘Where are we going?’ I asked, feeling a little anxious.
‘We’re going Pokemon hunting!’ he said with a wicked grin.
‘In the middle of the night?’
‘I’m going to show you my secret Pokemon Go hunting grounds.’ He turned to face me. ‘Are you in?’ he asked as if extending me a challenge.
I feigned nonchalance. ‘Sure, why not?’ I said and the butterflies fluttered in my stomach.
Quiet Down! I said to them when his shoulder bumped into mine as he steered me towards his car. One of them reminded me of what happened the last time I left work with a bartender.
Bartenders are a dangerous breed. It’s as if they are given a course on how to be irresistibly charming before they are taught to mix drinks. A transaction between bartender and customer lasts maybe ten minutes, tops, but the waitresses who work at the same venue, who exist in constant exposure to these charms, quickly need to learn to resist losing themselves under the bartender spell. They have this confidence about them that makes them irresistible. It’s like they know that you want them, even if you’re not sure that you do. That is the bartenders’ game. Their main goal is to get you to want them, even if they don’t necessarily want you back. These are very dangerous waters for a recently single, hopelessly romantic waitress.
My first experience with a bartender came when I was twenty and had been working in hospitality for about six months. Tom was blonde, a year younger than me and he exuded confidence, but not in an obviously arrogant way. He got my attention through the subtle use of ‘Hey you!’ greetings, and by placing his hands on my hips or my back when moving behind me in the cramped bar. Then he started to message me outside of work, innocently at first, just a friendly conversation in which we discovered all that we had in common, but then things turned sexual, as Snapchat conversations often do. We would message all day and often into the early hours of the morning. It sounds strange, but messaging someone while you are lying in bed can be almost as comforting as actually having someone lying in bed next to you.
At work we flirted subtly, and my skin would tremble when he grazed his hand across my back. We would lock eyes and quickly look away, not wanting anyone to know that we had spent the night before talking until four in the morning. This made it even more exciting. Yet somehow he remained unavailable to me. While he constantly told me how much he wanted me, there was always some excuse for not following through with the act. The tension between us at work became almost unbearable.
Until we actually did sleep together.
It happened one night after a group of us had been to the local pub for knock-off drinks. I was the designated driver, and he was my last passenger to deliver home. Convenient, I know. I pulled up outside his house and said that I should have been applauded for not taking advantage of his lowered inhibitions due to his intoxicated state.
‘Well, what do you want to do?’ he asked, looking over at me from the passenger seat. I ignored his question and got straight to the point.
‘Kiss me,’ I whispered, sounding much braver than I was.
So he did. The air in my car was hot and his tongue tasted like gin and bubblegum. When he got out of the car (pushing past five in the morning) he left his socks on the passenger seat and a bump on the back of my head that I saw as a souvenir.
The following night at work I made the mistake of asking him if he would like to go to a party at our co-worker’s place together. Apparently you should never ask out a bartender. But twenty-year-old me didn’t know that and I was put out by his non-committal answer. Then he ignored me for a good month. At first I was upset, feeling like I had not only lost a potential love-interest, but also a good friend, and then I became angry. He would flirt with customers and other waitresses in front of me and I would fight not to cry.
Somehow word of our night together spread. While nobody explicitly said anything to me about it, I would often approach a group of my co-workers, only to have them stop mid-conversation when they saw me.
The other wait-staff and bartenders acted like they didn’t take me seriously anymore.
‘That guy just patted me on the back when he asked me to bring his cake to the table, and he said “good girl” as he did it!’ I had said one shift, outraged. My coworkers were used to my rants and complaints about having to deal with sexism from the customers, but I was surprised when a waiter simply replied by saying, ‘That’s what you get for putting it all out there’. What exactly I was ‘putting out’ I wasn’t completely sure, but I knew that even though everyone was avoiding saying it, I was being branded a slut. I did my best to ignore it all but it worried away at the back of my mind, poking my self-esteem. I was ignored by the guy I thought was at the very least my friend, and was talked about and isolated by my co-workers (except the waiters who thought that since it was common knowledge that I had slept with a bartender, it was guaranteed that I would sleep with them too). I felt rejected and alone.
When I finally started to feel better about myself and moved on, like clockwork his name popped up on my phone asking what I was doing that night. I’d like to say that I told him where to go, but honestly I gave him two more chances after that first time, and he did the same thing each time, despite saying how much he had regretted hurting me. Eventually I just stopped replying to his messages, and chose to forget about our affair when he was promoted above me at the restaurant.
I tried to swear off bartenders after that, but they were, and continue to be my kryptonite. Every time a new one started working, and would look at me with his piercing eyes with a puppy-dog head tilt, I would have to avert my eyes, to keep from succumbing to his spell. I avoided socializing with people from work, saying that I was too busy or too tired to attend the parties or knock-off-drinks. The bartender’s charms needed to be resisted at all costs, because whenever I let them in I would lose all sense of reason and surrender myself to them, all while thinking that it was the best idea I had ever had.
But resistance never works, and as long as I work in hospitality (or go anywhere near a bar) I know I will always be at risk of falling for them. If I were at Hogwarts and Professor Slughorn asked how a Love Potion smelt to me, it would be the warm, wet smell of alcohol, cut with citrus.
I think one of the biggest charm factors with bartenders is their unavailability. When dealing with customers, they flirt their way through the transaction but when it is over they move on to someone new. They appear available but remain just out of reach, keeping you in a constant state of insecurity. You think that they want you, but you can’t be sure. This uncertainty is what keeps you coming back to the bar, time and time again, even when you know you have probably had enough.
This, and the lessons I had learnt from my first experience with a bartender is what should have been on my mind while I walked those cold streets with the bartender beside me, hunting non-existent creatures on our smartphones. But his spell was highly effective on me (possibly due to the lack of exposure I’d had to it over the last year) and my head was light and cloudy.
‘It’s about time I head home,’ he said when we finished our lap of the street, our hoods pulled up over our heads to shelter our faces from the sharp bite of the icy, ocean air. We were walking close together, our arms brushing against each other, neither of us choosing to give the other more space. We made it to our cars and he turned to face me. The butterflies spun in my stomach. He looked into my eyes, the piercing blueness of them hypnotizing me. He pushed the hair back from my face and I thought about who my maid on honour was going to be.
‘Aw, you’re too cute,’ he said, his voice soft and sweet around his smile, and he turned and walked towards his car, leaving me feeling as if I were gasping for air.
I stumbled towards my car, feeling like I was floating and not having full control of my limbs. My rose-coloured glasses were back and everything was pink and hazy. My skin tingled where he had touched me and I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. I put my car in reverse and all I could see was his face and all I could hear was his voice. My thoughts were consumed by him as I reversed. I barely even heard the bang or felt the wheels move over something. He had me in such a state that I was incapable of paying attention to anything else. My mind lingered on his bright blue eyes as I drove away, past his car that he hadn’t seemed to have started yet.
Image: Alex Knight
Sam Kiley is a University of Melbourne graduate with a Masters of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing. She lives in Melbourne, loves Harry Potter, Gilmore Girls and chocolate. Sam has worked in hospitality for the past 4 years.