For the first time in my life, my charm was failing to impress. With a PBR nestled in my grip and a painted-on smile, I was struggling to get Hot Cashier Girl to indicate she was listening to my hysterical story about Crazy Lady With All The Reusable Bags. Hot Cashier Girl's gaze jumped from my chin to the bedroom door behind my head. She was chewing gum too, even though she had a beer in her hand– I'd never seen her not chewing gum– and she was rubbing her thumb with the pointed nail of her index finger.
"Then she made me bag all ten cans of cat food separately," I said, throwing in a chuckle.
Hot Cashier Girl appeared unfazed. "She does that every time."
"Oh, really? I wouldn't know. Like, since I'm new and all, I've never cashed her out before." There was a pause. Hot Cashier Girl snapped her gum in time with the music. I wracked my brain for another icebreaker. "So, what do you–"
"I gotta go talk to someone," she interjected. I blinked and she was gone, leaving her half-finished beer on the counter.
My grin faded with disappointment. I checked my phone to avoid looking like I couldn't find anyone to talk to, which was absolutely true, but I didn't want to seem like a lost puppy in front of my new co-workers. Not that I knew any of their names. I was terrible with names. I'd only been working at Vita-Mart for a week; consequently, attending the annual "Employee Appreciation Party" earlier that day with minimal knowledge of my fellow employees was agony.
Hot Cashier Girl– whose name was right on the tip of my tongue, I swear– was the sole person who'd talked to me during my seven days of employment, and that was just because I'd been assigned the register next to hers. I figured the also-annual "Employee Appreciation Party After Party"– hosted by Hot Cashier Girl herself– would be a good way to branch out (and/or make out), but I was losing hope by the minute.
I stood alone for ten minutes before admitting to myself that my companion wasn't eager to come back for more riveting anecdotes. I sighed, finished the PBR, and made a pact with myself: I'll stick around for another half of a drink. If I'm still a lonely loser at that point, I'll pocket a few beers and head home.
Small talk was achieved with a muscular night shift manager. A congenial custodian with five piercings in one ear handed me a beer from the fridge. But no matter how hard I smiled, how many questions I asked, how goddamn charismatic I was, no one wanted to invite me to join their conversations. I'd officially achieved "Lost Puppy" status and was barreling head-first into "New Kid Hell."
A hand on my shoulder saved me from more uncomfortable idling. "Wanna help me prank my roommate?" asked Hot Cashier Girl, eyes alight with a smidgeon of enthusiasm. The first smidgeon ever, probably.
I smiled out of relief. "I'm all for pranks. What do you want me to do?"
"Not much." In one fluid movement, she grabbed my shoulders and engulfed my mouth in her own. My brain exploded with sparks of excitement, confusion, and the realization that we weren't making out as much as she was trying to suck my lips off. My chapped, chapped lips. Way to make an impression, Milo, was about all I could think. That and, pleasedon'tletmegetaboner.
Hot Cashier Girl broke away. My hearing, dulled by a sudden rush of blood, returned in time to hear cheers and snickers from surrounding partygoers. For a solid couple of seconds, I felt like the man.
She brushed away a piece of hair sticking to her lipstick. "Thanks."
"No... problem," I spat. A foreign piece of gum rattled on my tongue as I spoke. Pepperminty. "Wh... was that the prank?"
She smirked. "That was it."
"Oh my God," groaned a girl who'd been watching. "Lynette's pretending to be straight again!" A few people laughed.
In that moment, I realized Hot Cashier Girl's name was definitely Lynette. My heart sank. She'd just been stricken from Milo's Availability Radar. "Why did you–"
"Don't worry about it," she said. Her devious tone indicated otherwise.
With a beet-red face and sparks of adrenalin fading in my head, I watched Lynette walk over to someone standing at the bedroom door. She started talking to a guy with dark stubble, a wide grin, and his hands in his pockets. I froze. I knew this dude, but I couldn't place him. The memory was foggy– blurred by alcohol, but also reminiscent of alcohol.
I first met him at the bar next to Vita-Mart, which was aptly named "The Rock Bottom." It was a divey place adorned with photographs of the regulars and local politicians who came in for a pint. I went in there on a whim, feeling confident after a spectacular interview and on-the-spot hire at Vita-Mart.
I lost access to a fake ID when I left the rugby team, but I had gained enough experience within that time to know where I had a chance to get served without being carded. A dingy-looking facade indicated that the place might not care whether I was twenty (which I was) or twenty-one (which I definitely was not). As predicted, the wrinkly bartender frowned at me, but still forked over a beer. I gave him a tip to get on his better side.
I kept to myself in a booth by the window, texting school friends about how I won over the boss at Vita-Mart ("You play bass? I play bass! We should jam sometime!") and assuring them I'd make enough bank to re-enroll in spring semester. With a cold one in my hand and a discount on protein powder looming in my future, things seemed pretty ideal.
The guy– Lynette's stubbly-faced apartment guy– walked into the bar a little while after I did. He eyed me from the pool table as I headed to the bathroom; although I shot him a I know you're staring at me kind of smile,he startled me by speaking up.
"You work there?"
He nodded to my hands. I was still gripping a Welcome To Vita-Mart: Information For New Employees handbook. Some light reading for the urinal, perhaps.
"Wow. Forgot I was carrying that," I chuckled. He seemed unamused. "Uh, I just got hired, actually."
"Mhm." Standing up straight, he was slightly taller than me, and had the face of someone a few years older. He held a pool cue in his grip, but he was the only one shooting at the table. "I just got hired, too."
"Yeah." He smirked. "Six years ago."
It was hard to figure out if alcohol was messing with my perception or the guy's humor was drier than the inside of my asshole. "Haha," I ventured. "Well, nice to meet you, new co-worker! I'm Milo." I stuck out my hand. He hesitated before shaking it.
"Ezra," he said, then turned back to his solo pool game without another word. If I hadn't had to pee so badly, I would've been offended he didn't take more of an interest in who the fuck I was.
Ezra escaped my thoughts until I finished my beer, at which point a new bartender was manning the drinks. Reason told me to get a feel for the new guy before trying to get him to serve me without question, but my beer-mongering side said "fuck it," and ordered another Corona at light-speed. Total mistake.
"Need'ta see some ID," the bartender said, striking fear into my heart with every lazily annunciated syllable.
Okay, don't panic, I told myself. This is what you've trained for. Remember what the rugby vets told you during alumni weekend: get into character. You are twenty-one. Act surprised, maybe a little annoyed.
Carefully calculating every move, I puffed up my chest and put a hand on my hip. "Well, you see–"
"Milo?" I whipped around, heartbeat racing. Ezra stood behind me with a bewildered look that morphed into a warm grin. "Milo! When the hell'd you get here, man? I've been waiting for you– Jim, get my buddy a beer. On me." He opened his wallet and pulled out a ten.
"The kid's with you, Ezra?" the bartender asked. "Geeze, I was gonna ID him. Doesn't look a day over twenty."
"People tell me that's part of my charm," I joked, relief hitting me like a fucking tsunami.
Ezra led me to a table hidden from the bartender's sight. I sat and glanced up at my savior– just as he was turning to walk away.
"Hey, woah!" I called out to him. "How did you know I wasn't... you know..."
He looked back, expression stoic. "I saw your birthday on your application in the Vita-Mart office," he stated.
"Well, fuck, that's some life-saving information. Thanks."
He shrugged. "See you at work, Milo. Enjoy the beer."
"Wait! I need to pay you back."
He waved his hand dismissively and kept walking.
Though he was my straight-faced guardian angel at the bar, as I struggled to combat social isolation at the employee party, he looked a lot like my last resort.
I gotta make an attempt, I told myself. After one awkward silence, I'll get out of here and pretend this party was just a nightmare... well, with a bit of a wet dream thrown in the mix.
It was instantly clear that this was not the side of Ezra I encountered at the bar. His flushed face displayed a tilted smile, like he'd been grinning to himself. "Hey, it's you!" He clasped my palm in a split-second handshake. "It's underage kid... sorry, that was cruel. Milo!"
"Hey!" I mirrored his excited tone. "I totally forgot you work at Vita-Mart."
"I'm a glorified shelf stocker. I blend into the shadows when I want to." He waved a hand in front of his face and giggled. "I've seen you at the registers lately, though– hey, what was up with that chick with all the reusable bags the other day? Crazy."
My face lit up. "It was so crazy. Let me tell you about it..."
He listened to the whole thing, nodding and laughing at the parts where I wanted someone to nod and laugh. He even asked questions and looked engaged. It was driving me up the wall– was he really the person I met at Rock Bottom?
"I feel bad for you register people," Ezra told me. "You have to handle the weirdos every single fuckin' day. Me, I get the occasional question, but I get to say, 'sorry, not my department,'" he quoted in a mocking tone.
"But after six years, you must've been through some shit with customers, too," I assumed.
He rolled his eyes. "Fuck, man, let me tell you. One time, this dude was–" His sentence stopped abruptly. He fixed his gaze squarely between my eyes. "You remembered I've been at the Mart for six years?"
"I remember things every once and a while."
"Every once and a while. Same here," he laughed. "Yeah, I've been working at this shit hole since I quit going to college."
"Hey, I kinda quit, too! We're the College Quitters Club!" I exclaimed.
Ezra's expression softened, suddenly brimming with an unexplained warmth. That was definitely the first time my failure was met with a positive reaction. "College Quitters Club," he repeated, somewhat to himself. "You're on to something, I think."
"We should print t-shirts and charge for membership."
"And make a secret handshake."
Despite the fact that I'd thought Ezra's once-dull personality had its edges sharpened by drinking, I was beginning to see the truth. His coherence, his wit, and his demeanor weren't hazy like the average drunk person's; instead, it seemed like the beer in his hand activated his authentic disposition.
Lynette announced she was going to bed, and half of the party wandered off to Rock Bottom. Ezra told me to come along. I followed.
We hung around each other all night. He ordered my drinks so I wouldn't get carded. He taught me how to do a trick shot on the pool table. He told me stories about the cashiers and stockroom workers and maintenance guys. I knew he was drunk when he started looking at me longer, and maybe all the trouble began when I kept gazing back at him, smiling, laughing, and slowly forgetting the misery that haunted me when I returned from school with my tail between my legs.