I ignored the bitchy stares shot my way. I was still too hung over from celebrating Vanessa’s birthday last night to care. I wasn’t wasting another five minutes of my break trying to be polite. Not today. Not most days actually, if I really thought about it.
I hadn’t always been this way.
I pushed the thought away as I stepped out of the revolving doors and into the street. I stopped for a second when the icy chill of winter hit me. Someone slammed into me a second later, lurching me forward. I caught myself and went into motion, not caring to look back at the a*****e who’d nearly knocked me down. I’d been that a*****e a few minutes ago, anyway.
I stuffed my bare hands into my jacket pockets, cursing the cold. Delaney’s was a bit of a walk, but after a few blocks, the sea of black pea coats had already thinned significantly. Several minutes later I slipped into the dark musty air of the bar. I pulled myself up onto a stool and sat frozen for a few seconds, willing the chill away. I took a breath and unwrapped myself, dropping my coat onto the empty seat next to me. As I did, Jerry appeared from somewhere. He nodded in my direction and called my usual order into the back.
“What’s new today, Maya?” He grabbed a rag and wiped the already clean bar.
“Same s**t, different day.” I ran my fingers through my hair to get the static to die down.
He nodded and returned with a tall glass of diet Coke and a shot of Jameson.
I swore my body relaxed at the mere sight of them. My two best friends. Caffeine and booze. I couldn’t remember exactly when I’d started drinking during work hours. I hadn’t been caught yet, and no one from my office would ever be seen lunching here, so I honestly didn’t think much of it.
I’d turned twenty-five over the summer, marking almost four years working in a cubicle crunching numbers. After the bailout and the economy going to hell, working in finance wasn’t as glamorous as it used to be anymore. Except the money, of course. The promise that greed would somehow keep our financial system upright and that the people who managed to do it could still get rich with the effort. Money wasn’t something I’d ever had much of, so the lack of it was all the reason I needed to go in that direction.
Still, landing a job making as much as I did straight out of college felt impressive. Like I’d finally made it and all my hard work had paid off. But the glitz of a Wall Street job had worn off a lot faster than I’d expected when I realized that getting ahead was going to take a hell of a lot more than being good at my job. Nothing was ever easy. At least for me. Something always seemed to lurk around the corners, threatening to knock me down. But I’d come this far and was still standing.
I took the shot of Jameson and let the liquid burn on its way down to my empty stomach. My insides twisted a bit in protest but relaxed again when the alcohol absorbed. Hair of the dog.
Stella was sitting at the other end of the bar. She was a regular. Her hair was long like mine, but straggly and gray down to the blond tips from the last time she’d dyed it. That could have been years ago, and so much could change in the span of a few years. Even in the darkness of the bar, her pallid features seemed stark. The faint light from the windows of the tavern hit the side of her face, drawing lines of age and experience across her skin.
“How’s it going, Stella?” I called down to her. A few of the familiar faces looked over to me before going back to whatever they were doing—reading the paper, watching TV, staring into their beers looking for answers.
“Going real good, honey. Real good.”
She’d had an early start from what I could tell. Her eyes were glossed over and she shot me a slanted smile. If I looked hard enough, I could believe she used to be young and beautiful, but her face was so worn and sunken now from too many long days and cold nights. Or maybe it was cold days and long nights. I didn’t know her history, but somehow I knew there wasn’t a trace of who she used to be in the person I saw before me now. People passed her over. Hell, half the people in this seedy bar, who didn’t look too much better, passed her over.
I didn’t want to, though. I wanted to ask if she had a family, but I didn’t, knowing a question like that could hurt more than it could help.
Jerry returned with my food. Chicken fingers and fries, my favorite. I still ate the same food as I had when I was a kid. We’d order off the dollar menu or make a batch of Ramen when Mom was short on funds, but as a kid I never argued since that had been—and still was—the good stuff. Between my poor culinary cravings and my cubicle-dwelling lifestyle, I’d kept my college fifteen, plus a few. I regretted it, but not enough to do much about it.