I enter Rusty’s Place on the lower east side and claim my usual table in the back. I’m reluctant to meet the stranger I met online in a bar, especially a girl like me who hasn’t dated anyone since my traveling circus days, but my confidence is soaring and I don’t know why. You wouldn’t know why either if you saw me.
I light a cigarette. My doctor says I should quit smoking but I can’t. Rusty’s Place is the only public spot I’m comfortable in because people don’t stare at me and Rusty is a gem.
I’m about to chicken out but I have an obligation to fulfill. Rusty comes over and offers me gin. I shoo him away, I say, “I’m waiting for someone, don’t cramp my style. Just give me peanuts.” He acts surprised. “You’re meeting a—guy?”
“Not just any guy,” I say. “Snarky2000.” Smoke rings happen. “He’s got black hair like shoestring licorice,” I say.
I tell Rusty I met Snarky2000 online and we’ve chatted for months. I tell Rusty that I love Snarky2000. I love him so much even though I never met him. That every time he comes online my heart goes ping. “I’m in love with a screen name,” I say. “I’m in love with the concept of online dating tucked inside that little black font.” As if this quells any fear about meeting someone in the flesh. In a bar. Besides, I’m not technically meeting him in a bar, I’m meeting him at a bar. “There’s a difference,” I say.
“Whatever you say,” Rusty says.
I’ve been searching for love forever. I am desperate for companionship. But whenever a man gets too close, he runs away.
Snarky2000 doesn’t know what I look like. “No photo,” he’d said. He was satisfied with just my phone number because he got off on my voice and mine was a sweet one. He thinks I’m two–hundred and thirty pounds thinner than I am. What he doesn’t know is that I’m a three–hundred and sixty pound knockout. I told him I am an office assistant. I didn’t tell him I applied for a job as an exotic dancer at Rusty’s because I didn’t get hired. I asked Rusty if my busting the pole out of the ground had any bearing on his decision. “Maybe I swing too low? Too slow?”
“Too fat, kid,” he’d said.
The door at Rusty’s swings open dramatically, ushering in a breeze. The Happy Hour crowd shuffles in. I down three bowls of peanuts.
A shadow cuts a figure in the light. It’s him. He orders a beer and asks Rusty something I can’t hear. Rusty winks and nods in my direction. Snarky eyes the joint, but skims past me. My table in the corner smolders in a soft gray haze. Pinball machine bells go bling and bling. The place reeks of stale barley and hops. Rusty leans over and whispers in Snarky2000’s ear. Snarky2000 searches the room, his eyes skip over me—then back again. He picks up his drink. He’s headed my way.
As he steps closer into the light, I see his hair, black and swept back over his head, greasy and stiff. He’s got a decent build. He’s wearing dark glasses. He’s holding a cane.
“Are you Nanette?” he says to the air.
“Speak,” he says.
I open my mouth and swallow a fourth refill of peanuts. The vibes I get say Snarky’s on the level, but in the dark recesses of reality, my comfort zone is shattered by self–doubt. I grab my purse, and, wedged in tight, I suck in my breath and attempt to maneuver myself out from between the table and the bench, in what I can only describe as the beginning of a stampede, and manage to take the whole table with me.
“Where’re you going?” Rusty asks as I blow by him.
But I don’t answer. I’m already out the door.
Jennifer’s work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize for Fiction, the Million Writers Award, and a Sundress Best of the Net award, and has been published in journals such as the Cincinnati Review, Cimarron Review, Evergreen Review, Pank Magazine, Passages North, Seattle Review and elsewhere.
She lives in New York City where she gives poetry and prose readings in Brooklyn and on the lower east side of Manhattan. From time to time, she reads as the featured writer.