Fired. Dinesh had been fired. It had been four days since his meltdown, but still he sat in a shadowy corner of Rob’s Pub and nursed stiff drinks, staring with a dazed expression at the bar. After the first few hours of panic and misery, Dinesh shut down. He did not think about what happened; he did not even feel any flicker of emotion. But when he was not sleeping, he sat in his maroon booth at Rob’s Pub, from open til close, and watched the bar. Watched, as though in a time-lapse sequence, the demographics shifting before his eyes.
In the early morning, a leathery old motorcycle gang would roar into the parking lot and thunder through the door like a battering ram, then filled all the bar stools as they slurped Bloody Mary’s while scarfing down breakfast burritos. Later in the morning, a trio of El Salvadorians coming off an early shift would wander in and order coffee or beer as they watched soccer matches on the flat-screen mounted behind the bar. Around lunchtime, groups of chummy business-casual coworkers came in for the lunch specials, covert lunch-break beers, and baseball games. In the late afternoon, the bar was mostly empty except for a middle-aged gay couple that dropped by every day around four o’clock to share a massive lime-green margarita and stare into each other’s eyes, whispering and giggling. Then came the Happy Hour crowd, which cranked the volume of the bar up 10 notches with its lively chattering and boisterous laughter. Next, groups of well-dressed young women cat-walked in on high heels for dinner and drinks, catching up and stealing looks at the pool of young men that were now also filtering in. By 10 p.m., a DJ that led a double life as a student would appear, and by 11, the young crowd would begin moving cautiously on the dance floor with drinks in hand – by midnight, they were dancing freely with booze-induced abandon. By this time, all the responsible people who had work or class tomorrow were gone, leaving behind the bold, the reckless, and the wasted. They swayed and gyrated like the inflatable airdancers in front of car dealerships; they kissed with much passion and little precision; they stumbled to the bathroom or slumped against the wall or passed out on a chair.
And then they, too, were gone. And Dinesh would be alone.
The bartender would say, “closing time,” and Dinesh would pay his tab, walk across the street to his apartment, and flop down onto his bed for a deep, dreamless sleep before he woke up bright and early to do it all over again.
On Saturday, the demographics were slightly different; fewer regulars, more exploring Yelpers and thirsty out-of-towners.
On Sunday, Dinesh could not open the door. Locked. He waited and waited in the balmy air for the bartender to arrive; maybe she was late. But then he noticed the “CLOSED” sign on the window, then the bar hours, and realized Rob’s Pub wasn’t open on Sundays.
The news hit him like an ice-cold wave, jolting him from his stupor. Dinesh looked around in a panic, not knowing what to do, where to go. A throbbing of grief began to beat in time with his heart; he found himself slipping to the ground, back against the door, dry-sobbing into his knees.
“Hey, you ok?”
Dinesh looked up in surprise, not recognizing her at first. She looked different; usually she was in her bartending uniform, all black, with the Rob’s Pub logo emblazoned in the top right shirt corner and her long dark hair knotted in a bun at the nape of her neck. But now she wore jeans and a flowery tank top, her wavy locks flowing around her face like molasses.
“I’m Roberta,” she said. “The owner. You can call me Rob. Or Robbie, if you like.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Dinesh. Seen a lot of you this week.” Her voice was bemused.
“Are you open?” Dinesh asked, scrambling to his feet and trying to regain his composure.
“Not for business,” Robbie said, her eyes skimming over Dinesh’s haggard appearance. “I just came by to pick up my phone. Left it here last night. But tell you what, I’ll let you in for a quick bite, on the house. No alcohol, though.”
Dinesh nodded mutely and cleared his throat. “Thanks.”
He watched as Robbie unlocked the door with crisp efficiency, admiring the way she moved through the doorway with purpose and poise. This time he sat at the bar, waiting, for once, with no one to watch.
“Here you go – scrambled eggs, toast, and coffee.” Robbie emerged from the kitchen and placed two meals on the bar, then jumped over to sit beside Dinesh. “I’m starving!”
They ate in silence, but Dinesh began to feel better. A strange sense of peace settled over him.
“So,” Robbie said, fixing her shining raisinette eyes on Dinesh. “I’ve been watching you this week. And I have a question for you.”
Dinesh closed his eyes, his heart sinking. This was it. He would have to explain why he was suddenly here all the time. Why he no longer had a life. Why he was fired after devoting eight years to the business because he had lost his lust for life, because he no longer cared, because he stopped trying. He would have to explain that his old girlfriend had been his whole world up until two years ago, and then she died and he lost everything…had no one left, nothing left.
“I noticed you people-watching,” Robbie said.
Dinesh opened his eyes and looked at her quizzically. She smiled.
“I was just wondering what you found so interesting about my patrons,” she said with a shrug.
“Oh! Well, I suppose…” Dinesh frowned in thought. “I suppose it’s the variety. So many different types of people, so many lifestyles…so many worlds. Some intersect and interact….and some never do.”
Robbie reached over Dinesh to grab the pepper shaker, then vigorously tapped a smattering of the black flakes onto his plate. “Variety is the spice of life.”
Dinesh raised an eyebrow. He was tempted to smile. So tempted.
“I have another question for you,” Robbie said, resting her chin on her hand and peering at him speculatively. “Why is it that you’ve been watching all my patrons…but not once have you watched me?”
Dinesh blinked. “I…uh….what?”
“You come in, ask for your drinks and snacks without even looking me in the eye, then go to your corner to stare at everybody else. I must say, I’m offended.”
“I…” Dinesh gave a dry laugh. Clearly, she must be joking. He tried to change the subject. “How do you like working here?”
“Oh, I love it. I get to meet all sorts of interesting people. But you didn’t answer my question, mister.” Robbie pursed her lips.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say,” Dinesh said. “I…I’m looking at you now, if that helps.”
Robbie brightened instantly. “It does, actually! It helps a lot.” And she locked eyes with him.
He felt a strange strumming of anxiety inside of him, but Dinesh forced himself not to look away. He tried to stop his awkward, excessive blinking. And slowly but surely, he found himself looking at her, really looking at her. He looked at her shining eyes, her twitching lips, her expressive eyebrows. He looked at her delicate gestures and her beaded jewelry and the fleck of hot sauce on her chin. He watched her the way he watched the others, sinking slowly into her world, if only for a time.
“Hey,” he said suddenly. “You wanna get outta here?”
Robbie blinked, her olive-toned face flushing crimson.
“I meant, like, a walk or something,” Dinesh clarified quickly. “Forget it. I don’t know what I – ”
“I’d love to!” Robbie blurted out. Dinesh looked at her for a few moments more to make sure she had said what she meant to say, then found himself cracking a small, rare smile.
Dinesh grabbed the empty dishes and took them back to the kitchen to wash. “Cleaning is on me,” he said.
Then he walked back out to the bar, almost surprised that Robbie was still there, and arm-in-arm, they walked out the door.