Written by Ash Leonard.
It’s almost 1 am. The hotel bar is still swelling with a raucous crowd, glasses in hand, as the polite mingling from hours before turns into something more boisterous. I stink of stale beer, and my white shirt is stained with a few drops of burgundy wine. I’m exhausted from being on my feet all day. I really do not feel like smiling.
The man who ordered me to smile is swaying slightly on his bar stool, a sheen of sweat glistening on his forehead. If I smell bad, he smells worse. The professional façade he put on for the start of the conference is starting to slip, but it looks like he’s made a few friends since the start of the night. Patches of sweat the size of side plates ring his underarms, and his hair, in desperate need of a trim, is sticking out in all directions, rebelling against the layering of gel smeared through it. He and his mates sit in a cluster, reminding me of the boys in high school who used to sit by the lockers at lunchtime and catcall anyone who walked close by.
I force a small smile onto my face, glancing at the clock. Nearly time to close the bar. I hand him the beer he ordered, barely sitting it down on the bar mat before his hand swoops and raises the drink to his lips.
‘We’re about ready to call last drinks, just so you know.’
The man eyes me up and down, drinking his beer like he’s dying of thirst. He’s in for a big night, aided by the booze the conference has paid for. He’s not going to go quietly. My stomach turns—I’m not the best at confrontation. Training never seems to fully prepare you for your emotions at the time, and right now mine are threatening to bubble over.
‘Right, I’ll have another two pots then, love!’
‘I can only serve you one at a time, I’m sorry,’ I say, reaching under the bar and pulling out a cold beer glass from the fridge. ‘This will have to be your last one.’
He laughs as though he doesn’t believe I’m serious. Really, I shouldn’t be serving him anymore, but there’s only ten minutes to go. One more drink and then he can piss off upstairs to the rooms hired by the organiser of the conference. He can drink the contents of the mini bar up there, for all I care. As long as he gets out of my face.
‘Come on, where’s your smile gone?’ he asks, almost reaching over the bar to grab the beer the second it’s been poured.
‘Last drinks!’ I call, pointedly ignoring him and moving towards another customer. I’m spent, and my feet ache. I just want to go home.
‘You wanna meet my mate over here? I’ll bet he can get you to smile!’
Mr Profuse Sweater grabs an unfortunate colleague in a weak attempt at a headlock and erupts into laughter as if he’s the funniest person in the room. My workmate, Maddie, who is busy down the other end of the bar, glances over. I have no idea how she’s managed to make it through the night looking like she’s just started her shift—makeup still perfectly applied, hair in its proper place. She keeps a keen eye on the clock, and I know she’s counting down the minutes until she can get home too. She is supposed to sit an exam tomorrow morning at university, but she needs to take the shifts while she can. Casual work is fickle—we can’t afford to refuse shifts.
I push my fringe out of my eyes and give her a small shrug, like there’s not much we can do about him.
1 am comes around, and the loud chatter from the conference crowd is replaced by a quiet, bubbling noise that signals the end of a big night. The loud guy down the end of my bar is still here. He slams his pot glass onto the bar mat and starts beckoning to me with a slick palm, trying to get my attention. I ignore him and continue my restocking.
‘Hello?’ he slurs, words thick, waving his empty glass at me.
‘Sorry, sir, the bar’s closed.’
The disbelieving curse carries through the almost empty bar, prompting chuckles from his few remaining friends. I reach up and grab the empty glass from him.
‘Not even one drink? Come on, love!’
‘I won’t serve you more alcohol,’ I say, shaking my head.
I offer a grimace that doesn’t quite stretch to a smile. The tension is starting to build up. It starts in my shoulders, before working its way to my chest and lungs. Squeezing. Tightening.
He scoffs at me, a flush working its way up from under his collar.
‘What, you on the rag or something?’
My stomach drops. He laughs. His mates laugh. Like it’s the funniest thing in the world that he’s called out my weakness, and a man would be more understanding of his situation. As if he’s never been refused by a woman before, so the only reason for it could be that I’m compromised by my own embarrassing body. He’s waiting for a response, using a taboo subject for shock value, a bargaining chip to wear me down.
All for an extra pot of beer.
Any pretence of a smile slides from my face. I want nothing more than to jump the bar, and hit him in his smug, self-satisfied face.
‘Em, could you duck out the back and grab the mop for me please?’ Maddie asks, coming over as she wipes down the bar. ‘Time to head off, guys. You’ve still got a few days to go, you have to pace yourselves.’
‘We can handle it, love.’
‘That’s what they all say, but it always ends with me mopping vomit off the floor, regardless.’
They ask her for more beers, and when she refuses, they start with the same tactics they showed me. Maddie refuses to show her anger. They clear out after a few minutes, making a couple of lewd remarks to the night duty receptionist as they hurl themselves towards the elevators.
‘You all right, Em?’ Maddie asks, coming over and rubbing my arm for comfort. She’s been working at this hotel for two years longer than I have, but she isn’t that much older than me.
I nod and keep mopping, face still burning.
‘You can’t let them get to you.’
Irritation starts to prickle its way over my skin, but I force another nod. I can’t risk this job because of some drunk idiot with something to prove.
‘You let them see that you were angry. That only made it worse. If you pretend that you don’t give a shit, they eventually get bored.’
I don’t reply but continue to mop in silence. I just want to get home where I can be angry, but keep it private, hidden. I’ll keep my smile on for now and try to pretend like it doesn’t bother me at all.
Ash Leonard’s work appears in the Skeptic edition of WORDLY.