Author: TazRaven (Sara)
Bartending wasn't the best job. The men at the club were boisterous and often rude, especially after consuming the drinks they ordered from me. The pay was lousy, but then again, I was actually getting paid. That in itself was one of the best things that had happened to me in months. My life wasn't great, but it was better. The small amount of money I made gave me the luxury of being able to afford rent again, which meant I didn't have to sleep on the streets or camp at the Hoovervilles. I was able to rent a small apartment. Much smaller than my previous place, but enough. Anything was better than what I'd been through.
The regular paychecks also meant I could afford to buy food. That was a blessing. Scrounging through garbage cans, looking for food that hadn't gone rancid yet, was not my ideal way to live. It's amazing, the comforts I took for granted, how much more they seemed after losing those privileges. So no, my life wasn't perfect, but it was a far cry from some others I'd seen.
The speakeasy had a reputation opposite its name. No one talked about what went on there. No one discussed the illegal buying of alcohol, no one talked to the cops buying liquor at the bar, and no one made a fuss about the money changing hands under the table. There were many times I would go out back for a break and see crate after crate of liquor being unloaded. Despite all of the illegal activities, it was worth it. If a guilty conscience was the price to pay for warm food and a bed indoors, then I'd pay it a thousand times over.
I worked at the club every night, learning all there was to know about bartending, and more than I wanted to know about men's lives. The liquor loosened their lips, and in their inebriated state, they spoke to me about everything. I was privy to every dirty joke they'd ever heard, every conquest they'd experienced, every secret they'd promised to keep, and every trouble they'd come to drink away.
And then there was Tara.
I take it back. My life was perfect.
How can I possibly explain everything that she meant to me? From the moment I introduced myself, we became friends. That first night, she stayed at the end of the bar; talking with me every time I had a break until she had to go on stage. I watched every movement she made, stared transfixed as she fixed a stray strand of hair, took a sip of water, or smiled. If there was nothing else worthwhile about this job, then it would still be worth it. Going to work every night meant I would see her again, and while I did have to switch pronouns for stories about my past, I tried to keep as honest about myself as possible. I remember my third night at the bar. The first night I'd been too trepidatious around her to even think about saying more than my name, and the second night I'd spent all evening working up the courage to say something, only realizing that by the time I had, she'd left.
"So, William, who are you?"
I looked up from wiping the bar, my hand frozen, still clutching the dirty cloth. She was smiling at me as she sat on a stool near me, one elbow propped against the polished wood surface, her chin resting in her hand. Her expression held something indecipherable, some glint in her eye that seemed to say "I know you."
But she didn't.
"I'm..." I paused, unsure of how to answer the question. Who was I anymore? "I'm just a bartender." I continued rubbing the cloth across the bar.
She tilted her head slightly to the left before shaking it side to side. "No, I mean, who are you? Or who were you, before the, you know, the crash?"
I smiled at her clarification. "Oh. Well, I was a student. And I worked in a bookstore." She rolled her hand, silently asking me to continue. "That's really it. I went to school, worked at a bookstore, and paid rent. I was like a lot of people, I guess."
She shook her head again. "I sincerely doubt that, William." Looking up at the clock on the wall, she realized it was time for her set. She smiled at me one last time before standing up from the stool and walking away. I told myself not to watch her leave, but it was impossible. The woman had a lovely backside. Luckily, she didn't look back to catch me in the act.
An hour passed as she performed. I tried to pay attention to my duties as a bartender, but it proved to be more difficult that I thought. Tara was more alluring than ever, our brief talks adding even more content to my day dreams. For the second time that night, I dropped a shot glass as my mind was overtaken with images of her.
"Rosenberg!" I heard barked out from the side room. My sensible mind came rushing back as Mr. Mears came rushing out of office, his head low and his eyes full of rage, making him resemble an angry bull. "Drop one more glass, and I'll fire your ass!"
I nodded my head and muttered a "sorry" before returning my attention to the job I was actually getting paid for. He snorted and went back to his office as I breathed a silent sigh of relief. The night ended quickly, as did the next few, barely finding a moment to say a word to Tara, my time taken up by drunk patrons shouting orders, and hers taken up by drunk patrons shouting for encores.
I finally talked to her again one night after work. Tara's set had ended an hour earlier, and I assumed she'd gone home. I quickly finished wiping down the bar and washing the last of the glasses, before grabbing my coat and leaving the club, securely locking the door behind me. I turned around and ran into someone.
"Oof!" I was knocked backwards slightly with the impact, but as I opened my mouth to let loose a string of swears, I saw Tara. I shut my mouth with snap. "Tara!" I said, the shock evident in my voice. "I mean, Miss Maclay. I thought you'd gone home."
She shrugged her shoulders and smiled softly. "It was a nice night, so I decided to stay for a while. And you were right the first time, it's Tara."
"Tara," I whispered. She nodded her head, and I smiled. "Well, then if it's alright with you, it's just Will."
"I can work with that," she said, before wrapping her coat tightly around her.
"I think the nice night is turning cold," I observed. "Can I take you home?" The words tumbled from my mouth before I could think about their implication, as Tara's eyes widened in obvious shock. I internally smacked myself in the head. "No! I meant, uh, you know, your home, and I could walk you, because it's dark?"
She smiled and her eyes returned to their normal size. "That would be lovely, Will. I live just a few blocks north of here."
"I live north of here, too, but you live much closer," I said, my voice laced with humor and slight sarcasm. She gave me a wry smile as we started walking north, the cold chapping my lips and nose. "You were wonderful tonight," I whispered. Before she could respond, I continued, my mouth seemingly unconnected to my brain. "You're wonderful every night. The way you sing, it's amazing. You enthrall me."
Her cheeks, already pink from the cold, turned red. She turned her eyes to mine and said, "Thank you, Will," before turning back.
I nodded as we continued to walk, passing darkened shops and dimly lit street lamps, unable to believe I'd just said that.
"What do you want out of life, Will?"
Her question broke through the stillness of the night, startling me from my thoughts. "What do I want?" She nodded. "I want to be a secondary school teacher," I answered with no hesitation at all. My mind ran with other possible answers, and since my brain seemed to be disconnected from my mouth that night, I continued. "I want to be a good person, and have someone love me for who I am."
She stopped walking for a moment and I quickly followed suit, cringing inwardly as piercing blue eyes, visible even in the dim light, looked into mine. "Someone to love you as you are," she repeated, her brow furrowed slightly, seeming to mull over the words as they rolled from her lips.
"Yes," I whispered. My mind was screaming at me, telling me she should know the truth. But my mouth stayed shut, bottling in the secret that only wanted to come rushing out. After a few more seconds, she removed her gaze from mine as we continued to walk, going from street lamp to street lamp, the yellow glow from each creating a seemingly warm circle on the sidewalk.
In much too short a time, we reached her doorstep, an apartment building about five stories high. "Here's my stop," she said, her voice soft and soothing.
I nodded my head, waved a good-bye, and turned from the building, only stopping as I heard her speak.
"Do you know what I want, Will?"
I turned around and saw her standing on the steps of the building, looking almost small in her coat as she shivered from the cold.
I shook my head and moved a few steps closer. "What?"
"I'm just Tara Maclay, the daughter of two poor farmers from the rural outskirts of Chicago. I want to be Tara Maclay, celebrated blues singer. But mostly, I just want to be me, and have someone love me, for who I am." And before I could respond, she turned around and entered the building.
I walked the next fifteen blocks to my apartment building in a slight daze. Why would she have said that? I picked apart the remark, wondering why she'd repeated me, unable to stop my mind from its musings. Why didn't she say she wanted a husband? Somehow I arrived at my apartment, barely remembering the trip there once I'd left Tara's. I unlocked the door and pushed it open, before walking in and kicking it closed.
Either way, it seemed she already had a man. I didn't know his name, but I remembered the first night I'd entered the club. I was standing right there when he'd put his arm around her. And that wasn't the last I saw of him either. At least once a week that man would be in the club, watching Tara's performances with as much interest as I did. And every time she came down from the stage, he'd go up to her and put that arm around her. I never asked her who it was, but then again I didn't need to. Even if he was just a friend, which I highly doubted, I was no man. I was Willow Rosenberg in disguise, a woman underneath men's clothes.
Of course, that didn't stop my mind from its imaginings. My dreams invented scenarios in which she discovered my secret but did not care. Scenarios in which we kissed passionately as lovers did, as she unwrapped the binding around my chest and gave me the chance to feel myself pressed against her. But they were only flights of fancy, and through all the times we conversed, I never once let my true feelings for her escape.
I quickly undressed and made a quick trip to the bathroom, before slipping on my nightgown and crawling into bed. As I sat staring up at the ceiling, my restless mind turned to more unpleasant thoughts.
While Tara made my job seem perfect, it wasn't, and for a very good reason that came in the form of a greasy man of average height. My boss, Mr. Warren Mears. Whoever said that all men were inherently good had obviously never met this one. I remember the night I realized I hated him. He'd never been one of my favorite people before then, but afterwards, it was all I could do to keep myself from punching him as he walked past. He'd caught me staring at Tara while she was on stage, and while I won't repeat what he said about her, I can say that it was vulgar and disgusting and exceedingly untrue of the Tara I knew. It was a rumor, spread by the men she'd turned down. It came as no surprise that Mr. Mears was part of that group.
That was the same night I saw him acting oddly. I was cleaning the glasses before the next round of drinks, casually scanning the bar since Tara's set wasn't for another half-hour. He came out of his office, an almost unintelligible look on his face, and walked through the bar without making eye contact. At the time I didn't think anything of it, but thinking back on that night, the look was obvious. A look of pure and simple terror.
Two nights later, the Chicago police found the body of Warren Mears stuffed head first into the dumpster right outside the club. Well, it would have been head first, if he hadn't been decapitated.