There’s a woman in her 20’s. Bar 2. Orders a Midori Sour and puts her phone light under it to create a green lamp. Brown trench coat, leather boots, diary out. She soon asks for a Gin & Tonic, Hennessey, maybe to neutralize the saccharine Midori. She tilts her chin up and stares into the air before putting pen to paper, approaching her future like a lego project. This aesthetic is so perfect I wonder if she is performing it to herself. I wonder if she goes home and halts at the doorway, unable to breathe, terrified of her own youth.
There’s a young couple. Table 3. The man explains to her what goes in the cocktail he thinks she might like. I’m sure she knows already. She listens anyway and lets him order. A Black Russian for him and a Kahlua Milk for her. The recipes are similar, so it doesn’t take me long to return to their table with their drinks, and they’re already making out. Good thing they’re sitting in a corner, and good thing I’ve learned how to push plates out and disappear silently.
There’s another couple. Older. Table 9. They share a bottle of Glenfiddich 12 and a look that says it all. They know which songs they’re going to request before they pick up the pen. They steal glances at the young couple in the corner, laughing under their masks. The woman pretends to go to the restroom and deliberately walks the long way, so she can check whether they’re really making out. She promises to report back, and he waits, holding a mouthful of love behind his teeth.
There’s a whole party. Table 10. They bring a cake with them, and we curse inside. (Cake and cheesy nachos are the hardest to clean up.) They’re mostly corporate men; probably went straight from the office to hweshik to this bar. They order eight hundred dollars’ worth of champagne and laugh lightly and speak politely. It’s hard to tell which of them hate the fact that they have to be here tonight instead of with their families.
There’s an old man. Table 6. He asks if there’s a “keep bottle” in his name. There isn’t. He orders vodka and drinks it on the rocks, eyes closed the entire time, falling asleep to the music and into himself. He drowns in the stickiness of longing. All twisted and gummy. Nothing ever goes right. Many have come here alone, but none have been so solitary. I slice a whole lemon for him and am so pleased with myself, but he leaves it untouched.
There are two middle-aged men. Table 5. They each order a Jack & Coke, then another. And another. One of them looks like a regular office worker and the other has an ultra-frizzy, basement-studio-starving-artist look. He can’t hold himself back from giving expert air guitar performances whenever a solo plays over the speakers. They clearly had a band in the 80’s. When I serve them their last drinks, there’s only a splash of coke left in the bottle, and I take the liberty of drinking it myself. I make eye contact with the frizzy one as I raise the bottle to my lips. He swirls his drink.
Yet there are more men. Bar 1, closest to the DJ. They ask for beer, whatever kind people usually get. I start listing off the popular brands, and one of them snickers. “No, nothing Korean. I meant the foreign ones.” I’m not sure whether I’m more annoyed at their order or at how they spit banmal—informal Korean—in my face. Their first song request is Creep. I used to like that song.
There’s a girl. She’s been working here two months and hasn’t gained an ounce of grace. Knows too well the sensation of glass breaking against glass; has fished in the sink for the fragments of her own destruction, lest they end up somewhere they shouldn’t. She lets her foot tap along to the music and spaces out. The manager gives her a word on spacing out. She continues to space out. When work is slow, she writes about the customers on the little memo pad meant for song requests. One time, sajangnim walks over for something to label the whiskey with and asks if he can take the paper she’s been writing on. She says sure, it’s nothing important. Forgets what she’d written. Only remembers how she spent the whole night thinking about which of these people she’d hate to be when she’s thirty, forty, fifty. She can’t pass by a mirror without looking into it. She can’t see how, when she was younger, she didn’t believe in first impressions at all.
None of this means anything. There are no takeaways. There’s nothing I want to say about strangers having stories and coming together in a room and taking on personas and observing one another. There’s nothing I want to say about my job. There’s nothing I want.
I overheard a teacher ask a 13-year-old:
“Why were you happiest until the age of 5?”
“I don’t remember anything at all. So I must have been happy.”