Caged in Winter

By: Brighton Walsh

I head over, seeing Jason at the pool table, curled over the bent form of his latest conquest, no doubt “improving” her shooting skills. He notices me, tips his chin, and grins before returning his attention to the girl he’s probably hoping to get in the pants of tonight.

I flag the waitress, ordering a beer, and get pulled into a conversation between Sean and Dave about last night’s game.

After a while, a hard slap lands on my shoulder. “Hey, pussy.”

I look over my shoulder and straighten to my full height. Jason is tall, but I’m taller, and I stare down at him. “You really want to start this? I kicked your ass in third grade. I can do it again.”

A laugh rumbles out of him. “Yeah, only because you sucker punched me.” He shakes his head, landing another blow on my shoulder. “I can see you’re still pissy as hell. We need to get you laid.” Before I can retort, he continues, “You get a beer already? What’d ya think of Mandi?”

With a furrowed brow, I ask, “Who?”

“Our waitress. The food here sucks, but the uniforms definitely make up for it.”

I stare at him for a minute, before shaking my head. “You’re such a jackass. I don’t understand how you even get girls to sleep with you.”

“Charisma, my friend. Charisma. And speaking of getting girls to sleep with me, where’s Tess?” He waggles his eyebrows, and I shove him so hard he stumbles back, laughing.

“Fuck off.”

Holding his hands up in surrender, he says, “I’m just playing.” He’s been just playing regarding Tess for as long as I can remember. The first time he said something like that, I ended up with swollen knuckles and he had a black eye. He tips his beer in my direction. “Drink up. You need to relax.”



Sometimes I daydream. Think about what it will be like after I’ve graduated. Once I have a steady job. A real job. Something that doesn’t require ninety percent of my skin showing. I picture myself in Maine or South Carolina or Texas. New York, maybe. I’ve become so good at this, I can almost smell the scents of my nonexistent apartment in some far-off city, can name the colors of paint on the walls, can count the number of dirty dishes in the sink.

When I’m working, it’s my escape. When I have to smile and bend over to pick up a customer’s napkin or get him something from the kitchen for the fourth time so he can watch my ass as I walk away . . . it’s what I think about to get through the hours, the minutes. It helps to remind myself why I’m here. What I’m working for. Why I put up with jackasses who smell of whiskey and cigarettes and cheap cologne. Who smell exactly like my childhood.

“Sweetheart. Hey, sweetheart!”

I’m so wrapped up in my fantasy, it takes me a moment to realize a guy from table seven is talking to me. I hate this part of the night. Those thirty minutes before last call, when everyone is drunk on alcohol and the prospect of getting lucky. The men get rowdy and restless . . . never a good combination.

“What can I get you?”

He crooks his finger at me, beckoning me closer. Internally, I roll my eyes, but my face holds the mask I’ve perfected in the time I’ve worked here, and I lean forward until his whiskey breath whispers across my cheek.

“You can get me your number.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve been propositioned, and it’s definitely the tamer kind I’ve heard. By now, I have a system in place. In the time it takes me to imagine what I’d do if this asshole told me that outside these four walls, I keep my eyes down and allow a hint of a smile to curve my lips, shuttering my real thoughts from him. When it seems like I’ve had long enough to actually contemplate his words, I offer him a regretful look, the corners of my mouth turned down. “I’d love to, but we’re not allowed to give our numbers to the customers.”

“Just pretend you’re not working, then.”

I’m standing close enough for his arm to snake around my back, his hand settling on my waist. After thirteen months of working here, I’ve gotten pretty good at reading people. I know from fairly early on which guys are going to hassle me, which ones are harmless flirts, which ones will get handsy by the end of the night. I called this guy as the latter when he was two beers in . . . six drinks ago. It makes my skin crawl, but I’ve had a long time to practice this façade. I could win a freaking Oscar for the performances I put on here.

I lean into him slightly—just enough to make him think I’d actually be interested . . . if only we met at a different time, in a different place—and point to the back corner where a mirrored window reflects back at us. “I’d love to, but my boss is watching. I can’t afford to get fired.” The latter, at least, is true.

Sometimes they’re satisfied when I feed them the whole “my boss is watching” line. Sometimes all I need to do is flirt a little bit, bat my eyelashes, flash a smile, bite my bottom lip. Sometimes that’s not enough, and I need to lean into them, touch their forearm or their shoulder. Those nights aren’t so bad. I still feel dirty after I leave, and I take a shower as soon as I get home, attempting to wash the disgust off me. And then I mark off the days on my calendar and remind myself this isn’t for nothing. I’m paving my path the best way I can. The only way I can on my own.

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