It would be a lie for Declan to say he had noticed her the first time she’d come into the bar. It was probably a Friday, and she had probably ordered a white wine spritzer. It was all anyone drank in the hot weather here, and sometimes Declan felt like he was getting secondhand bloat just from mixing up all those bubbles.
So on a quiet Tuesday night in September when she sat down at the bar and asked for a dirty martini, Declan had been struck by her auburn hair and the way her blouse hung on her shoulders, and he had asked “what brings you here?” in the Irish brogue that drove girls wild. When she said, “I’ve been here before,” he was shaken. He catalogued all of the possibilities that could have led to his temporary blindness on such a night, because there was no way he possibly could have missed her otherwise. A squeeze of lemon juice in the eye? One shot too many? Maybe he was below the bar switching out a keg. Stupid.
He pushed the martini in front of her, and she had smiled and asked for change. He wished she had paid with a credit card so he could find out her name. At the register he had to stop and ask himself if he had put any vermouth in the martini, and from the slight grimace on her face he knew he hadn’t. Declan decided not to say anything to correct his mistake. He didn’t want her thinking he was an incompetent bartender. Confidence was everything, in this kind of situation.
To his surprise, she slurps down the whole thing.
Eventually, a friend joined her at the bar, calling her Della.
Normally Declan liked playing a game with the names he heard around the bar. What could the name mean?
Nicola is an armchair created by a Swedish designer.
Roland is a cough drop, a certain cut of turtleneck sweater.
Meyer is already a lemon.
If Declan had not been so taken with the auburn-haired girl at the bar he would have said:
Della is a type of porcelain, or a thin-sliced Italian meat on a charcuterie plate.
Instead all he could think was: mine.
The bar where Declan works is called Maxwell House. This has nothing to do with the coffee, much to the chagrin of overtired tourists who come in seeking caffeine.
The owner of the bar has a deep love for English romances, from Austen’s tales of Pemberley to the upstairs and downstairs melodramas of British television. He wishes he had an estate of his own, one worthy of a grand name like Maxwell House. Instead, he has a pub. He was born in Queens, which has nothing to do with the British monarchy. Instead of servants he hires British waitresses and bartenders, and Declan, who is Irish, because there was an Irish scullery maid on his favorite television show. His shock of red hair adds a bit of color to the place.
The women who come into the bar are smitten with Declan, with his funny gold beard and his wardrobe of rotating plaid shirts. It’s almost a guarantee that one girl will slur a bit about a trip to Ireland and tell him she “visited the Guinness factory once,” as if every person in all of Ireland lives in the Guinness factory, and on some nights he will be polite and flirt back. But Della’s been in the bar more frequently and he cannot help being distracted by the shine of her hair. Wasn’t there an O. Henry story about her? Should he buy her a set of combs? Did women wear combs nowadays?
And the owner comes out and scold Declan for his poor customer service, telling him to give the girls he was ignoring a round of shots in the plastic medicine cups they use on busy Saturday nights. Declan swallows his displeasure with a shot of cinnamon whiskey, and the girls scream like the tea kettle whistling in some far-off British manor of our owner’s daydreams.
“And who wants to be chased anyway, really?”
Della stirs her dirty martini with a vigor, already bracing herself for the next burning sip. She doesn’t quite like the taste of this drink—and at this particular bar the bartender is always too light on the vermouth and liberal with the vodka, so each sip goes down like diesel fuel—but it’s worth it for the olive at the end. She likes when the olives have pimento or bits of blue cheese in them.
Maybe that’s why it’s easy to confess to third-date Todd who sits across from her that she does not see the appeal in being chased when it comes to relationships. The bartender–the one with the red hair–presses a cocktail napkin in front of her without a word.
“A guy once told me—in bed, no less—that I wasn’t fun because I wouldn’t put up a fight.” A vague buzzing in her skull tells her it is uncouth to bring up past lovers on third dates, but she’s already committed to the point. Confidence is everything, in this kind of situation.
“He told me I didn’t present a challenge,” she says. “Why would I want to torture myself? I see something, I want it, I go for it.”
This statement causes Todd to peek up at Della, to shift his eyes from “polite listening” position to “actually listening” position, and Della can feel her cheeks flush with alcohol and pleasure.
“I think the exciting part is the actually being together, you know?”
And Todd, who is already half-in-love with her, nods his head.
Declan is listening, too, and he crumples the rest of the cocktail napkins in his fist. Two weeks ago Della had brought Todd to Maxwell House and they had conversed over the mussels special and drinks in a table off in the corner, and Declan had been in hell at the bar, listening to a young woman mispronounce “Claddagh” so horribly that he was convinced she was going to hock a loogie.
Todd had settled the bill. They had hugged goodbye at the door and walked in opposite directions, and Declan was able to breathe for the first time that evening.
The situation was this: Declan hasn’t spoken to Della after that first night. She is always in conversation with someone else, only speaking to him when she is ordering another martini, only making eye contact half of the time. He had started distilling meaning into mundane interactions, like dropping change into her palm. Each time he went out of his way to do something he wanted to pinch himself, to man-up and talk to her, growl in the brogue that all the other girls loved. But he was rendered mute, and the flame went out of his hair, until he only smoldered on the inside.
Todd is the name for those flimsy metal tabs on the backs of picture frames that hardly ever get the job done.
Della heads into the bathroom after drinking three dirty martinis, and everything is bleary around the edges. She’s smiling the contorted smile of someone who is inebriated but also happy.
“Your dress is nice,” one girl at the sink says to her.
“It’s called a bandage dress,” another girl says. “It hugs you in all the right places.”
Della stares at herself in the mirror and thinks: bandage dress.
She thinks: Am I hurt?
Todd is kind. He is an investment banker with an affinity for sushi and singing competition reality shows, which she finds charming. And maybe she blew it when she told him what she wanted. But maybe she didn’t.
Della takes in the Christmas lights and the vintage British advertisements for toothpaste and candies that decorate the walls. The bartender is looking at her and she warms at the eye contact and even gives him a little wave.
“I’m a regular,” she thinks. Then she crosses back to Todd and swallows down the rest of her martini. When he touches her hand it feels like a promise.
The owner is wearing cufflinks in the shapes of little golden castles. They do not go well with the rough green button-down he sports, but they make his night a little brighter.
“Take five,” he tells Declan. “You’re scaring away all the ladies with that scowl of yours. There are dozens of other Irish boys who would kill for a chance to work here.”
From the corner of the room Declan watches as Todd helps Della into her coat, so eager that he nearly knocks her sideways. This time they do not part ways when they reach the door.
Declan is a wool blanket, muted and heavy.
It’s only when he’s back behind the bar does he realize the green olive in his hand. He pops it into his mouth and bites down. Warm. Salty. A bit of brine.