by David Beaumier
People call it seductiveness. They say I’m irresistible. I don’t try to be anything. I just do my best to keep people at arm’s length. That’s the most I can say as I scrub the bathroom down, my shower curtain removed, in part, to help leave the tub clear.
Okay, hold on, let’s take a step back.
I work at a bar called The Honeymoon—romantic, I know, but their main deal is selling mead and mead cocktails, so it’s more of a pun than just another cheesy name. The space is beautiful. Brown stone floor, copper tabletops, candles at every booth, a blackwood bar top, and the best part is how easy it is to keep people from coming behind the counter. The entrance is so small you can block people just by standing in the way. There’s a piano and stage deep in the bar where they feature poets and musical artists most nights. When I first moved to Bellingham I managed to get a job here. I’ve worked service all over the world to the point that I need to lie about all the places I’ve worked so that people won’t refuse to hire me because they think I’ll be overqualified.
The first months living in a college town were hard. I hear the summers are beautiful, and it’s true that the fall has some amazing sunny days, but there’s a chill that runs through my bones. None of the houses are built to last. They all have something wrong with them, and every bathroom has a mold problem. The windows are single-paned, and, in my apartment at least, when I opened a wall panel in my closet, the insulation looked like someone only half-finished it. I pay extra for a month-to-month lease. Despite the failings of insulation, I do like the location.
The entryway is sort of hidden, just off of an alley, and it’s a quick walk to the nearby bay where I can watch the sunset on a rocky beach and think of home. I spend the first months under two blankets at all times (more when I sleep), buy three pairs of long underwear online from Target, and I relish the time I spend at work as an escape from the icebox studio that I pay too much for and call home. I decide I can only stand a year or two here. But that’s before I give into my love for performing and start singing at one of the Honeymoon’s open mics. There was never a question of if I was going to sing, only when I would start.
I could try to explain why this changes everything, but it wouldn’t really convey the meaning, and I’m not sure you’d believe me. When I sing for people, my deep voice flows out of me and fills the bar, making the copper tabletops shine all the brighter and stilling the motion of everyone in the room as they turn toward me. I warm myself on the attention of the audience, letting it fill me better than any meal ever could. After only two months at the open mics, Joyce, my boss, decides I’ll be their artist-in-residence. I play the guitar as a distant cousin of the lyre I learned when I was young, and the piano which I picked up in Italy, so I don’t need to hire an accompanist. Joyce likes it so much that she tells me I can get paid my regular wage, and even the bartender slips in a quarter of her tips the nights that I sing because I bring so many more people in to drink. This is in addition to the tips for the musician that go into my jar.
A few of the local reps, all men, offer to help market me around town for a slight fee. I agree to do a few shows with one of them—an older man with long hair who plays everything, including knuckle bones—because he’s so sweet, but no individual gigs and nothing out of town. It’s not the way I work, all that attention just leads to disaster in the end. Besides, with all the extra tip money I’m making now, I can afford to actually turn on the baseboard heating in my house. The first time I did it, the heat smelled like burned yarn for the first hour, but then the warmth soaked into my bones. Of course, my electric bill shoots up to $200 a month, just to keep things at sixty-five degrees, but it’s just another reason the housing here is shit. Even with that expense, I still have enough to donate to the local women’s shelter and the sexual assault help center. I know it’s a small thing to do to make up for what happens if I let someone get too close, which I can never really avoid.
The first night I see him I think he’s a poet I used to know named Homer. He isn’t. But he has that sweet face, the trim beard, skin just a little shiny with oil, which has the effect of making him look radiant rather than gross. I’m grateful that it’s not a night I perform, but instead I’m just working the bar. He notices me looking and shifts, adjusting in his chair so his body is more open to me across the counter, even while he maintains eye contact with his friend.
I try. Everywhere I go, I try not to get involved with anyone. There’s always someone who is interested, and it never ends well.
“Hey,” he says when I am mixing a drink near him.
“Still working on that?” I nod to his mug.
“I could use another, actually.” And he slides it forward.
I’m relieved that he doesn’t try to engage me more. “Sure, one second.” I finish the drink I’m making. Hand it to the waiting customer, and then I take his mug and refill it. Hot spiced mead is the specialty here, and he’s not alone in enjoying it.
“Remind me, do you have a tab?” I ask.
“Nah.” He slides over seven dollars, which pays for the drink and the tip.
I sweep the extra dollar into my jar and put the rest in the till. I turn to his friend. “Anything else for you, hon?”
He turns red, obviously the shy one, obviously taken, but I don’t have to worry about him. “No, I’m okay. Thank you.” He’s very polite.
The two of them don’t bother me the rest of the night. Just a quick wave from the Homer-look-alike and a call of “Thanks so much! Have a good night!”
I go to pick up their napkins and find a note.
If ever you want to hang out and get to know each other, give me a call. –Chance
Chance. Of course. What a name. A name for fates. I can’t believe that someone with that perfect a name, someone that handsome, comes into my bar and leaves me his number. I want to call the number at the bottom, but I’m not going to, because, remember, that always ends badly.
The next week he comes back with a book. Alone.
“Hi,” he says. “I hope it’s not weird for me to come back after leaving my number. I just like the ambiance here. We can pretend it never happened.”
I smile. It’s a sweet offer. “I’m just not really looking for that now, you know?”
“Yeah, I get it.” He holds out a hand. “Friends?”
I reach across the bar and shake it. His warmth surges through me for a moment, and I let go quickly. He orders one of the fancier cocktails. I wonder a little if he does it for an excuse to watch me take longer in making it, but he’s mostly reading his book now. I read the title at the top of the page. Moby Dick. A nautical fan then.
He catches me looking as I finish his drink and set it next to him. “Have you read it?”
I nod. “I enjoyed Berthold’s take on it as an abolitionist tale.”
He blinks. “I always thought it was more of a Hemmingway thing. Man versus nature.”
I shrug. “I think it’s more man versus self, but that self could be the nature of man, if that makes any sense.”
He tilts his head at me, inviting me to explain more.
“If men are naturally selfish and narcissistic, thinking their needs are always superior to others, then where does that leave us? Racism has become so systemic that it’s almost a natural part of the white environment. And what can’t Ahab let go of? The big white whale. The book explores the question of whether or not we can resist our base desires.”
He nods his head slowly. “Berthold you said?”
I smile. “The title of the article is ‘Moby Dick and the American Slave Narrative.’”
“Thanks for the rec, I’ll check it out.” He puts a bookmark in his book and pulls out his phone. I’m amazed that this makes me feel good. That the standard is so low that a man taking me at my word and looking up a classic that I am better versed in than he is rather than arguing impresses me. And he just immediately goes to do his own research on my recommendations without disagreeing or trying to argue a point that I already know he hadn’t thought through before this conversation. I like that he can reject all that training on what it means to be a man, to resist the need to be right. That is attractive.
I ignore him and go about my night. It’s an open mic, which of course I don’t participate in anymore since I get paid for the residency nights. Abby, the emcee gives me a shoutout.
“Remember everyone, the Friday after this upcoming one our very own Sarah Zantolas will be performing as our local artist-in-residence.” She leans into the mic, letting her voice go sultry. “And it’s not an experience to be missed.”
I wave off the cheers and applause with a shout to remember to tip well.
Chance perks up.
“You sing?” he asks.
“A little,” I say. He’s sweet. I could almost see going on a date with him. But if he comes to hear me sing, it’s over. I can’t date someone who wants to be in both parts of my life. At this point, he’s already too close to me. “Tell you what.” I lean across the bar. “I will get coffee with you this week if you do not come to see me perform.” I take a moment to register the surprise on his face. “Ever.”
He gives me a sidelong look. “Do you have performance anxiety?”
“No, I just don’t want you to come see me sing.”
He shrugs. “I would love to say yes, but I’m going on a camping trip with friends this next week. I’m not even back until Friday.”
“Okay, well, don’t come, and we can schedule after.”
Of course he starts to push. Why do they always start to push? “My schedule won’t be out until Sunday, but I usually work on Wednesdays. Just come by then. If I’m working a different day I’ll text you.”
“I got to admit. I really want to come hear you sing now.”
And that’s how, next Friday, despite my express wishes, Chance and his shy friend end up in one of the booths near the back on my artist-in-residence night. Of course, I’m sitting near the front in the table that’s saved for me when I need to take a break, surrounded by my usual fans. Sure, those fans ask me out for coffee, drinks, and a few grosser propositions, but they’re not in the same danger. Besides, it isn’t their fault. I want to believe that Chance can make it through, but I don’t have too much hope.
I head to the back, pushing through the people who want my attention, who find excuses to put their hands on me. I ask for a honey lemon tea from the bartender. Chance takes the opportunity to come over.
“I know you said not to come—”
“Please, you should leave,” I tell him quietly. I don’t want people to think he’s harassing me or anything, but this is his last chance. “I promise, a date.”
He puts a hand on my shoulder and looks in my eyes. “I know you’re going to be great. You have nothing to worry about.”
When I get up and perform, it’s like I black out for a little bit. When I practice at home, I can hear myself and feel it, but an instinct takes over when I have an audience. It’s like I can feel my sisters from back home surrounding me, lifting me up, and singing with me. There wasn’t as much fear of others then because we were strong together. We lived peacefully on an island, making everything that we needed, finding a few things that floated by from boats or passersby. We sang in great joy together, lighting everything up so that the world sparkled at our song. Of course, mistakes were made then, too.
I finish my set. The blur of the world returns to normal. I see the radiant faces, red with alcohol, red with adoration. I look around, hoping he’s left, that he decided not to stay. But no, Chance is still here. His shy friend has left already. I look at Chance. Perfect beard, a button up shirt that fits him, and now something new that I regret. His face shines at me in joy at having heard me. I know he won’t leave until he gets to speak to me.
I walk behind the bar to pour myself a drink. I get a free meal and drink on nights I sing, in addition to the great tip pot I take home. Sometimes I ask the bartender to make it for me, but tonight it gives me an excuse to let Chance talk to me early and then take off. A little space might keep him safe.
“You were…you were…You wanted me to miss that?” He’s incredulous.
“People treat me differently,” I say. “I wanted you to treat me normally.”
“I mean, sure, I can pretend you’re not a goddess if that would make you happy.”
I sigh. “No, I know you’ll be thinking it. Thanks though.”
The look on his face is one I recognize all too well. This is why I came back now, while the bar is still full and we can both feel everyone’s eyes on us, people eager to talk to me.
“Okay, well,” he says. “I guess I’ll see you next time I’m in.”
At this point, he’s hooked. He’ll come in a few more times, and then hopefully someone will pry him loose, or we’ll have to eighty-six him. Not the ideal end, and not my preferred way of getting progressively larger and larger tips couched with unreasonable expectations, but fuck. That’s how it goes.
The rest of my fans are generally pleasant. The best way I can describe it is to say that my song is like a contact high. You talk to me, spend even more than a little time around me as myself, and it’s more like shooting up. Emotional distance lets it be the best party you’ve been to, nothing more. I stay late and help put up the chairs for the bartender to sweep. All that settled, I head out.
The Honeymoon lets out into an alleyway, mostly asphalt with a little gravel. I hear him crunching before I’ve gone fifteen feet.
“Hi Chance.” He really does look like Homer. Homer who I always loved, who was the only one who could listen and make things work. If only I could find someone like him again.
“Sarah,” he says, heavy breath misting the cold air.
“Do you know what it looks like? When you wait for a woman after she gets off work?”
He looks confused. I want to believe he wouldn’t do this otherwise. That he’s a good guy.
“I appreciate that you liked my singing, but this is a little too much. I think maybe we should have some space.” Even as I say it, I can feel a roar like a flood boiling up in my ears. I push it down.
His head twitches like his neck has a spasm. “Space, right.” He turns and walks maybe ten steps away and then stops, not turning around, just still.
I try to keep quiet as I walk away, but the gravel in the alleyway is too hard to avoid in the dark, and the wind rustles a loose can that hadn’t made it into a bin. He turns around. Any glimmer that was him in his eyes has been replaced by desire. By a need that is no longer tempered by silly concerns like thinking of what I might want. I don’t believe people go through this change without already having the potential there, but I do always feel guilty. Like I forced them to, no matter how much I try to avoid it.
“I want to come with you,” his voice is low.
“I know you do.” I sigh. This just means I’ll probably have to leave sooner than I expected. I hate moving in winter. Maybe I can find work on a farm somewhere and just sing to the animals in the fields. I still need to sing. It’s what I am. “Come on, then.” I offer an arm. Experience has shown me that at this point it’s better to humor them. It makes what happens later easier. We walk the twenty minutes back to my house in silence, the only sound from him hoarse raspy breath, like he’s a body without a soul.
As we approach my apartment, I slide my arm out from his. There’s a moment of pause where he tightens his hold, and then releases me. Poor man. I take my keys and unlock the door. I take his hand and the warmth from him surges through me. I can feel my instincts taking over, hungering, but I promised myself I would always try to give them a chance.
My studio is small. I have a twin bed that doubles as a couch in the corner furthest from the door. A tiled area squeezed into one corner serves as the kitchen, with a little table where I eat all my meals. I bring him in to that table, which does have two chairs even though it barely fits two people. I don’t entertain much. We’re both still wearing our jackets, our shoes, and I haven’t turned the heat on. Only the main overhead light that isn’t quite able to light up the room.
One last try. I pull my hands away from him and fold them in front of me. “Listen, Chance, you’re a great guy. You’re sweet, and I can tell you’re thoughtful.”
“I don’t want to be with you. I asked you not to hear me sing because I know it changes how people see me. I want to ask if you’ll leave. I want you to forget me.”
“But I’ve never felt this way about anyone before! You’re amazing! I…I don’t know how I would ever let you go.” He reaches out, and, again, the warmth surges through me. The rushing feeling in my head is overwhelming.
I move my hands out of reach and put them under the table. “Please. Close your eyes.” He does so. “I want you to remember how you listened when I told you I wasn’t interested in you the first time we met. The way you listened when I told you something new about Moby Dick. I need you to listen to me one last time and forget.”
His eyes flash open and he leaps to his feet, knocking over his chair. “I can’t!” he cries out. “I could never! Would never!”
I give into the rush. That’s the way it is then.
“Okay.” I smile at him. “How about I’ll get the heat going, and you go hop in the shower. I’ll come join you soon?”
“In the shower?” His face conveys nothing but disbelief at his good fortune.
I get up and turn on the heater and step into the bedroom, waiting until I hear the water start and Chance step into the shower. Then I start to sing, letting my voice fill the apartment. As I let the song pour out of me, it feels like the world lights up with a soft glow. I pull a plastic tote from underneath my bed. First I remove a large tarp, which I place on the floor between the bathroom and the doorway. Then I change into a pair of fresh scrubs and drape a plastic apron over it. The last thing I grab is my kopis, a large knife from home.
I pause for a breath, stepping into the bathroom where I can see the outline of Chance showering through the curtain. Again, I let myself imagine, dream that he is Homer and that this is not the life I’ve found myself living for centuries.
I resume my song and open the curtain. Chance doesn’t even look askance at the fact I haven’t stripped, or that I am holding a blade. He just stares, wrapped in my music.
I step into the shower with him and slip the knife into his armpit, severing the axillary artery. I set the kopis just outside the shower, closing the curtain behind me, and I take Chance in my arms as the blood rushes out of him in a flood, mixing with the water pouring over us. Together, we lower down to the base of the tub, and I sing to him. The wonderful warmth of his life rushes into me with my song and makes me feel like I am about to be struck by lightning, every cell in my body charged. Once he bleeds out, I’ll wrap him in the shower curtain and take him to the bay and weigh him down.
I dream about the day when I can find another person who can resist me.
David Beaumier (he/him) always holds true to his first love of Argentine tango, but when not dancing he writes. His work has appeared in EWU’s Inroads, WWU’s Suffix, Whatcom Writes, and HamLit. He’s worked as the assistant publishing director at Village Books, and the project manager for The Writers’ Corner Anthology. While he takes on part time freelance work from time to time, he currently spends most of his time as the head of Author Outreach at Chanticleer Book Reviews.