Jeanie doesn’t tell me that she strips for Frank sometimes to make a couple extra bucks. She doesn’t tell me that they do blow on his boat while it’s docked in the harbor, and then she shows him her breasts, her panties. She keeps these things inside during our long, post-shift talks when we pretend to be different people. Instead, she tells me things like this: Frank’s harmless. He’s just old and rich, and his boat is always stocked.
When she says this, I know she’s talking about liquor, chilled bottles of Cabo Wabo tequila, though she never explains this detail either.
Please come with me, Dawn, Jeanie says. Just for an hour, she says.
We’re on the patio of the marina bar, still in our uniforms from the restaurant this morning. Once the lunch rush was over, we walked to the bar for a beer or two to unwind. Jeanie is on beer number six. It has been three hours since our shift ended. The sun has started to unravel, and the boats in the harbor are crisp and white, rolling but steady, tied-down.
We wait on people like Frank all the time, wizened sailors with leathery skin, always in cargo shorts patched with pockets, glassy beady eyes. They order the fish and drink white wine with dinner, tip twenty percent down to the change, and ask for toothpicks. They call us babe, honey, or sweetheart, follow the curves of our bodies with their eyes as we pre-bus their tables. Men who say, You’re too pretty to be a waitress. You’re much too pretty to be single and alone.
A week ago, Frank came into our restaurant, and Jeanie lost her mind. He doesn’t sit in her section anymore, but it’s hard to hide when teamwork requires servers to run food and drinks for all seated tables, not just their own. When she spotted him, she ran up to the table screaming and cursing, told him to leave, go back on his boat. I watched, carrying an armful of plates, as she shook her finger in his face. Frank just laughed, pulling new twenties from his wallet to pay the bill. The money sat erect, like a tent, on top of the check presenter. The table wasn’t even bussed, his food still warm. He stuck a toothpick in his mouth by the host stand as he made his way to the door. Rolled it around from side to side with his tongue.
On my way to the dish pit, a knife slid from its perfectly placed position to the floor, sounding a clatter as it hit the polished cement, a warning to other servers and guests about the hazards of over-stacking, being clumsy. I crossed paths with Frank as he was headed to the front.
You dropped something, Dollface, he said while putting the knife on top of the plate tower in my arms. He sucked on the toothpick, flipped it up with his eyebrows to say goodbye. I concentrated on the extra silver, held my breath until I made the dish pit, until he made the front door to leave.
When he was gone, Jeanie called him a cokehead. An embarrassment.
I really don’t want to go on the boat, I tell Jeanie as I finish the last of my beer, number four. I reach down to my apron, still fastened around my waist, and grab my server book to count the twenties leftover from this afternoon. Three. A ten, a five, and two faded ones. Just enough to cover our tab and buy something small for dinner. Spare change to put toward my cable bill.
How many times have I done things for you? Jeanie asks. Please, she says. I’ll give you a free facial.
Before waiting tables, while the rest of us slept our way through undergraduate degrees, Jeanie went to esthetician school. When people ask Jeanie about being an esthetician, about free facials, she tells them she’s much more interested in doing make-up these days. She hopes that one day she can do make-up for celebrities rather than the hostesses during Prom week. Her own face, though, is always a day old and slept in. When I see her at work, she usually smells sour like beer and has woken up on another co-worker’s couch, eyeliner smudged under her lashes, leftovers from her face on their cushion pillows.
Do I look hung over? she’ll ask, and then, Do I smell okay? As a thank you, she’ll add, You’d look great with plum eye shadow. It’ll bring out the natural green in your eyes, she’ll say, while scampering off, coasters in hand to greet a new-down.
After each shift, she likes to drink and talk about it, her big accomplishment, using technical words, selling products: only use Dermalogica on your face, Kiehl’s is much better for dry skin, M.A.C. for contouring eyes, NARS blush #108992 Orgasm drives men wild. She makes empty promises for make-up tutorials, using her license for beauty store discounts in exchange for company, insuring that she’s never at the bar alone.
I like to drink and listen, pretending that someday I, too, will do something grand with my life, something that involves jargon, selling points, something much more than waiting tables to pay off my student loans. Currently, I’m pretending to be a singer, a fantasy I often had while watching Madonna music videos as kid. My excuse for not picking up another server’s shift is a tangled web of vocal coaches, album rehearsals, singing in the Sunday choir. These lies are easy, like the ones I tell my guests at work: the salmon is the best thing on the menu, the fried chicken is the best thing on the menu, I’m sorry but the kitchen lost your ticket, have you tried our pasta? it’s the best.
It’s wise to keep management on their toes, to make them think they are just about to lose you. It’s only a serving job and I could quit at any time. The comfortable servers are the ones who make the most mistakes, the ones with the most comps on their checkout.
I thought you said you don’t charge friends for facials, I say twisting my glass, observing my trembling reflection in the last sip of pale brown. I have problem skin, over-active sebaceous glands, large pores, uncomfortable without make-up. Jeanie doesn’t know this, she won’t ever, I already know there won’t be a facial.
I don’t, Jeanie says. Come on, Dawn. Finish your drink.
We’ve been debating the boat and Frank ever since Jeanie spotted him walk into the marina bar this afternoon. He came in through the side-door, the one the regulars use. At the bar-top inside, Frank takes a shot of something, probably tequila, and gives the bartender an exaggerated high-five so loud that we hear the smack before we see him walking to our table with a fresh beer.
Not this one again, he says while looking at Jeanie and rolling his eyes. Bartender, you don’t want to be responsible for this one, he calls out, making a scene. His words hang in the quiet space like a banner, like we are celebrating something.
The patio of the bar is empty except for a homeless man because it is only a Tuesday and most people during this time are inside a cubicle at a real job. The man sits in the corner alone, and his smell of fish and body odor permeates the atmosphere as the minutes roll by, as the water becomes darker.
Frank, Jeanie whines. Buy me a shot.
No, he says. Buy yourself one.
You don’t need a shot.
But I want one, Jeanie says. She crosses her arms to pout. The exchange has me smiling, but it fades when I think of Jeanie posing in her underwear for this man in exchange for money to pay her car insurance.
How can you hang out with this girl? Frank asks me. He’s joking again, trying to get a rise out of her. Jeanie’s expression changes from pout to shock when he says it. People ask me this question all the time, and I shrug, wondering why she’s a problem. I think, Why do people go out to eat dinner? It’s just another question that doesn’t have a clear answer.
Miss Dawn, Frank says while turning to face me, Where have you been lately? You get a real gig, yet? He reaches down for my hand and kisses the top of it when I oblige him. Frank asks me this question all the time. To Frank, out of all the other girls, I’m the one who went to college—this is how he remembers me—a snob he said when I once refused his liquor. I’m wound tight, a cold machine, cautious, keenly aware until I’ve had a few. I remember when you used to be fun, Jeanie says sometimes, and I scan my mind for who that person was, who I was pretending to be. Perhaps Frank is right, I should have a real job by now, I hear the voice of my mother echo between my ears, There’s a big world outside that restaurant. I want to answer Frank’s question with something like vocal training or auditions, but before I have time to come up with something he diverts our attention back to the drink. What are we taking? he asks.
The three of us make up the points of a triangle with Frank at the tip, towering over. An ashtray is in the middle of our table. Jeanie’s pack of Parliaments sits near there, open and half empty. There is a yellow lighter reading Vegas beside them.
Rumpie, Jeanie says, referring to Rumplemintz, her favorite to shoot. Jeanie doesn’t tell me that it’s 100-proof liquor when I ask about it either.
I’m good, I say when Frank looks at me. He gives me this face, like he’s disappointed, and regardless of my answer—I know what is about to happen. Frank will walk into the bar and Jeanie will do a little shake with her upper body because she has won. He will come back to our table with three clear shots, and even though I said I didn’t want one, I will let the thick liquid slowly glide down my throat, choking a little when I taste the mint.
When Frank comes back with our shots, I wince and bend down to check my phone in the pocket of my apron, hoping that I can get out of it by not making eye contact. I can’t, I say. I don’t think hard liquor is good coating for my throat. I use my palm and press on my neck while the sounds of my voice vibrate inside.
Dawn, no one turns down free booze, Jeanie says while holding her drink up. Her eyes narrow, she clenches her teeth. Don’t be a bitch, she says. Frank throws his back without waiting for the cheers. He closes his eyes for a moment longer than blinking and stands up. I see him look over at Jeanie, who is chasing her shot with the warm leftovers of her beer. She shudders. Her tongue darts out like a snake, and she licks her lips.
You girls wanna go to the boat? he says, and I wonder if he’s had this planned all day. I wonder if he walked past our restaurant on the way to grab his morning cup at the marina coffee shop and saw us delivering trays of Bloody Marys to our tables. I wonder if Frank knew this would happen, at six p.m. Jeanie would be wasted and ready for him at the marina bar. I can’t tell if I’m having déjà vu or if I’ve just worked here too long. The years of this life, the ones after graduation, have all blurred into a line so solid that I can’t tell where one night ends and another begins.
Frank stands, and suddenly I notice that the sky has changed to lavender, the clouds are cotton-candy pink, the boats in the harbor are still, bright and white, lined up like piano keys. This would be a beautiful day to be in the marina if we were tourists, on vacation from the high plains where the same sun sets in a different way. But we are not. We are a couple of waitresses and a wharf rat. There is nothing glamorous about what we are doing. If a movie were to be made about this exact moment, the celebrities playing us would not have nice make-up.
Jeanie leaves a single, crisp twenty on the table under the stack of empty shot glasses. She doesn’t say anything but mouths the word please as she grabs her pack of Parliaments and lights one. Frank walks away, and Jeanie bounces behind him like a small yappy dog.
Frank’s boat is docked in the marina, and I can see our restaurant on one side and the bar on the other in the distance. It’s a busy weeknight and the patio is full of couples and families. It’s just about dinnertime, and I imagine what they are eating. Our restaurant is known for fish, sushi. I think of colorful meals on large plates sliding onto the tables, guests asking for condiments, children wanting extra soy sauce, their forks, like teeth, biting into the meat.
We walk inside the boat’s cabin and sit down at a small round table. The boat is clean and shiny. The cushions we sit on feel stiff and unused, releasing a plastic sound as we adjust ourselves looking for comfort. Frank tells us that the seats double as life-savers if the boat goes down.
Did I tell you about my teeth, Jeanie says suddenly, interrupting a quiet between shifting. Frank, Frank, did I tell you? she asks. She lights up another cigarette, and I bat the smoke away with my palm. I stare at her mouth while she smokes, wondering what she’s getting at, where the teeth come in to play.
No, honey, Frank says, feigning interest. He opens the mini-fridge and pulls out a bottle of vodka. He takes three plastic cups and starts to pour. Is cranberry okay? he asks. His voice is rough and cracked and if I were to close my eyes, he could sound something like my grandfather. Frank croaks again about juice, and I nod yes for the red.
In my tiny reality of this moment, a dry place away from the boat and the work and my responsibility, I want to tell Frank that I hate cranberry juice, that I’m fine, that my “vocal coach” prefers warm chamomile tea. But instead, I smile and say thank you when he places the cup in front of me. Somewhere at the bottom of that drink, I see a future flashing. People are always telling me that Jeanie and I could be sisters, twins even.
Well, about my teeth, Jeanie continues, I think I have a cavity. She’s reapplying lip-gloss with a compact while she tells her story. I wonder which parts of it she is leaving out. If I don’t fix it soon, I’ll have to get a root canal. It hurts pretty bad, she says. She closes her mouth and I see her tongue inside, moving around her teeth. She looks at me and puts her hand in a fist by her face, faking a blowjob, the tongue around her teeth now darting into the side of her cheek. It’s a secret that Frank can’t see, so I smile, I take a drink so the cup can hide my mouth.
Why don’t you go to the dentist? Frank asks. The three of us are seated around the shiny table like diplomats, concentrating as if Jeanie’s teeth are of actual importance. Frank uses his hand to scratch his chin. He’s thinking.
Come on, you know I don’t have insurance for that shit. You think they give us health insurance? Jeanie says. She points in the direction of the restaurant when she says this and starts to laugh, she takes a pull. The gulp is audible.
Seriously, I say, but I don’t know if I am agreeing to our lack of health care or Jeanie’s avoidance of the dentist.
I ask, What are you going to do? It’s an earnest question, I’m asking about tonight, our meeting with Frank, giving Jeanie an assist, but she doesn’t answer. She eyes her drink, then her eyes dart toward Frank’s, then a quick laugh puffs out from behind her lips.
Jeanie’s giddiness increases by the minute. Every time she takes a swig of her drink, her voice becomes louder. She curses. She moves away from the table and asks Frank to turn on some music. Come on, she says, let’s hear some jams. Frank agrees without a fight and turns the dial of a small clock radio attached underneath a cabinet in the kitchen-nook-area of the boat. Swells of staticky pop music begin fill the cabin. Jeanie starts to dance and my stomach feels sick.
Not this again, Frank says. He snaps his fingers to the beat and goes to turn the music louder. He is laughing. Jeanie climbs up on the table and cackles the way she always does when she’s had too much. It’s her seasoned announcement of last call, it’s the noise that tells me to phone the cab. It’s getting louder and louder. Drinks are spilling. Jeanie dances as if she’s done this before, as if she’s practiced.
Frank, you know Dawn is a singer, right? she says.
Stop, I say. My insides begin to bubble the way they always do when I am caught in a lie—a guest saying, I thought you were out of the mahi mahi tonight? I pull my phone from my apron again, but it’s no use, the two of them are beckoning, grabbing at me from my spot at table.
Sing us something, sing-a-song, Jeanie says. She’s never heard me sing before. No one from the restaurant has. The truth is the last time I sang in front of anyone was when I was in pigtails, and this is all just a game to make myself feel better about having nothing, about doing nothing but feeding people, delivering plates. Jeanie looks at me and it’s like she knows my secret. C’mon, Dawn, she says, her face sinister. Her hand reaches out, but she knows I won’t take it.
Frank says, It’s time to show us what you got. He’s trying to dance, but really it just comes off as a shake or a tremble. He looks like he’s seizing. He reaches down in a snap and takes my wrist, pulling me from my seat to a standing position. His grip is tight, and as I try to wrestle loose, he presses harder. He pulls me toward him, and his free hand grazes my hips. Like this, he says, as he moves in my direction. His touch is electric, zapping against my skin. I look down at the table and brace the edge to keep still. My stomach laps in waves.
No, not today, I say. I try to unscrew my wrist from his palm once more, but this time Frank moves both his hands to the small of my back, trapping me in a hug. He sways from left to right, moving my body with his to the music and it’s like we’re slow dancing even though I resist it. I feel his breath hot and stale on my face as he wheezes and laughs. I feel his body closing in, closer to me, I feel him from inside his shorts. He slides one hand from my waist to my hips, lightly at first, and then I feel his fingers. He tests the waters, moving around under my apron, his hand crab crawling toward my crotch. Frank says, Now open that pretty mouth, while staring directly into my eyes, he doesn’t blink, he isn’t talking about my face the way his hand is daring. Jeanie hollers. She cat calls from her spot on the table.
In a surge of strength, I collect all the energy left inside me, even though it’s jellied and wild now that I’m drunk and push Frank’s body away, twisting free. He stumbles against his kitchen cabinets. Whoa, he says laughing. His legs bend, tremble, and then he stands, unfazed. His eyes never leave mine as I move to the corner by the toilet, by the exit. I push my lips together and clench my fists by my waist.
You know I’m on vocal rest, I say, and at that minute, I really mean it. I want to scream, but the sound doesn’t come.
Jeanie barely acknowledges me, she’s bored, too busy shaking her chest. Frank shrugs, then staggers toward her, and my eyes close. I imagine for a moment that I am a real singer, alone on stage with a microphone, but when I open my eyes—there is no applause, no fans. It’s just me and Jeanie on some old man’s boat.
Wanna see my new bra? Jeanie asks above the music. She crawls down from the table and straddles Frank, who is now back in his original seat. I just got it from Target. She lifts up her uniform shirt and Frank says, Cute.
It’s a black push up with lace and tiny pink bows.
Fuckin’ cute, huh? she says lifting her breasts to fill the cups.
The boat is still docked, but it rocks and swings as if we are at sea. Jeanie pulls her hair out of its ponytail and begins to swirl her head to the music, strands of her hair falling into Frank’s face, sweeping the skin by his eyes. I peel away from the back corner of the boat where I have hidden, and excuse myself when they aren’t looking to sit outside on the deck. Neither of them turn around or notice or care.
Outside, my legs hang over the bow, covering the letter “t” in the boat’s name: Lovely Rita. It’s late. The sun has finally set and it’s dark. From what I can see, the guests on the patio of our restaurant are starting to filter out and go home. Maybe one of them stays for dessert.
Easy, easy, I hear Frank say from inside. He says something else, and Jeanie squeals.
When I first started grabbing drinks with Jeanie after work, we’d always talk about what we’d be doing if we weren’t serving tables.
I’m going to be famous for make-up, my smoky eye, Jeanie once said. I can make anyone look perfect.
Yeah, I said, agreeing. And then it was my turn for a confession, a dream, because not having one means you aren’t interesting or important. It means you are only a waitress, and that’s never enough.
I’ve always wanted to be a singer, I said.
Can you sing? Jeanie asked, and I knew this was a moment to be boundless.
I can sing. I do all right, I said. I didn’t want to tell Jeanie that the last time I sang for a crowd was in my fifth grade production of Free to Be, You and Me, how my crowning moment was my solo performance of “It’s Alright to Cry.” Instead, I told her: mock plans for an upcoming album, my morning exercises. Talk spread like sickness in the restaurant, the way talk does when the bored and poor and have nothing better to do. And then I was Dawn, the singer, fitting in with the others: the writer, the actress, the mother, the drunk.
You and I, Dawn, we’re not going to be doing this shit much longer. We’re going to make it, Jeanie said. I can feel it. She put her hands to her face and jazzed her fingers. Then she smashed her lit cigarette on the table.
That day we stayed at the marina bar until the night shift was cut, until our reliefs were outside joining us with stories of how the kitchen was slammed, the host desk short-staffed. That was the night I first met Frank. He came in and bought a round of shots for all the girls at our table like he was some kind of celebrity. The other girls thanked him, gave him hugs, kissed his sun-burnt cheeks. I smelled the small glass of alcohol, twisted the liquid around and around, inspecting. Jeanie followed him like a lovesick teenager. It was the same night I heard the rumors.
You know she takes her clothes off for him, one of my co-workers said as we watched Jeanie inside taking more shots. You know she’ll do anything for a little money and a little blow once she’s drunk. The table laughed in echoes watching Jeanie play-fight with Frank by the jukebox. Jeanie fed her money to the machine and then danced to Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” for all of us, yelling between lyrics, This is my favorite song! I sat there with the crowd humming along, trying to harmonize, as if the things I said that night were also true, as if I weren’t pretending.
Jeanie joins me outside the cabin after what feels like an hour. My eyes are closed, and I hear her voice before I see her. I try to listen for Frank, but when I don’t hear him I guess that he’s passed out. The boat rocks up and down with the wind, more buoyant now that it’s completely night. Jeanie has lost all animation. She’s quiet, moves slowly. She lights one of her cigarettes, inhales deep, and then long.
Ready to go? she asks. She grabs for my hand, and this time I take it. We make our way off the boat and on to the dock. I don’t say anything. I don’t need to.
Can we not talk about it, she says.
Back at my apartment, I give Jeanie a pair of sweats and a t-shirt to sleep in. She falls asleep in my bed. She doesn’t wash her face. She sleeps without snoring, and I catch her reaching to hold me in the middle of the night.
In the morning, she wakes up laughing, and asks me to tell her what happened.
You don’t remember the boat? I ask. Jeanie rolls her eyes and reaches for her purse. She pretends to scroll through her phone for missed calls, and I leave her to do so. I hear her say, My Mommy called me, with a voice that I don’t recognize. While I’m getting ready, brushing my hair and teeth, I notice Jeanie thumbing through her server book in the mirror. I see the money there that wasn’t there before. Jeanie never tells me the whole of the story anyway. I remember something that Jeanie once said during work: I don’t see faces, I see dollar signs. From this distance, in the mirror’s reflection, I see Jeanie bright and smiling down at all her cash as she separates and straightens the bills by currency. My focus on her is so sharp that everything around us spins, begins to blur.
Hey, Jeanie says, let me do your make-up today.
She pulls a travel bag from her purse, and I coil down to sit cross-legged in front of her. As she sweeps powder on my face with a brush, I notice the bags under her eyes. She has me suck my face in like a fish, and then dabs blush on my cheekbones. I think about how tired she must be. I want to tell her to go back to sleep, go back to my bed. Jeanie says, Close your eyes. She covers my imperfections with powder and a fingernail-sized brush.
You know, she says, when you become famous, you can hire me to do your make-up.
Of course, I say. As Jeanie applies a thick streak of black to my eyelids, her notorious smoky eye, I start to hum a song that I haven’t sung aloud in years.