14 June 2007 | Vol. 7, No. 2

Strange Men in Bars

Jennifer is sitting alone, nursing a 7UP and squinting across a dim, smoky motel lounge at her mother. It's a Thursday night around ten o'clock, and Mallory's already had three Black Russians and a vodka tonic. The effect of this combination is that Jennifer's 43-year-old mother—a woman who works in a bank and wears expensive tailored suits and strings of pearls, who speaks in a low, carefully modulated voice about stock options at the breakfast table—is sliding around a dance floor with a drunk man from the bar, his arms knotted around her waist and his face buried in her neck. It's a sickening sight, yet Jennifer is unable to look away.

The band takes a five-minute break, but Mallory and her partner go on dancing for a few seconds after the music stops, swaying to some rhythm only they can hear. At last they break apart, and the man pats her arm clumsily before lurching away.

For a moment, Jennifer thinks she sees a look of recognition; she thinks that Mallory realizes how crazy this is. But then Mallory turns and disappears through the swinging doors at the back of the room.

Jennifer slips out of her booth and follows Mallory from the lounge into the back hallway, which is equally dim and smells faintly of disinfectant. Mallory is strategically poised between the men's and women's bathrooms.

"Mom," Jennifer says. "What are you doing?"

"Waiting for Rick," her mother says in a bright, false tone. She tucks a stray hair behind her ear and gives Jennifer a little smile.

Rick is the bass player from the band: a lean, beautiful boy just out of college. He stopped calling Mallory about a month ago.

"Come on, Mom. Let's go home," Jennifer says. "I have a math test in the morning."

Mallory shakes her head. "What are you talking about? We're having fun."

The door of the men's restroom swings open.

"Rick!" Mallory exclaims, feigning surprise.

Looking uncomfortable, Rick says, "Hey."

"I didn't know you were here. Jennifer and I are just having a little girls' night out." She slings one arm around Jennifer's shoulder.

Rick sighs. "Mallory," he says. "Seriously. You gotta quit following me. This is the third time this week."

Mallory's smile stays frozen in place. Weakly, she says, "I don't know what you're talking about. We're just…" Her voice trails off.

He frowns. "Yeah, well, I gotta get back out there." He presses through one of the swinging doors and escapes into the main room.

Mallory leans against the wall and says, "Oh, Jenny, I made such a fool of myself."

"It's all right," Jennifer tells her. "Don't feel bad." She pats her mother's arm, and then when Mallory's feeling better, drives her home and puts her to bed.

The next night, Jennifer tells Mallory that she isn't going.

"Come on," Mallory says. "It's Friday. Let's go out and have some fun. You've been working too hard anyway."

Jennifer is sitting on her bed in a white bathrobe and slippers with a history textbook propped in her lap. She had thought Mallory might take the hint and leave her alone.

Instead, Mallory hangs in the doorway wearing an outfit from the eighties: a black jacket with hot pink streaks and big shoulder pads, sleeves pushed back from her wrists, with a pair of black slacks and a black shirt. Her dark hair is brushed back, and she has on the little gold studs Jennifer gave her as a birthday present the year before.

"You're turning into a stalker," Jennifer says. "Just forget about Rick."

"I don't want to forget about Rick. Now get dressed and let's go. Come on." Mallory's voice is brisk, almost mom-like, but her hand is trembling and there are bags under her eyes that careful makeup hasn't quite concealed.

Jennifer can't stand the thought of making her beg. She sighs reluctantly. "All right. I'll be out in a few minutes."

Rick and company are back in the motel lounge for the evening. Jennifer sits in a corner booth. She avoids looking across the room at Mallory, who's stumbling against chairs and apologizing to people in a low, slurred voice.

A middle-aged man stops by Jennifer's table and holds out two mugs of beer. "Do you mind if I sit down?" he asks. "You look lonely."

"No, thank you," Jennifer says, hating how prim her voice sounds. "My mother told me not to talk to strange men in bars."

He raises his eyebrows. "Isn’t that your mother?" He juts his chin, indicating a point across the room. "I saw you come in with her."

Jennifer glances over. Mallory is standing near the stage with her eyes closed, holding her arms in the air and swaying back and forth almost in time with the music. Feeling pained, Jennifer nods.

"She looks lonely, too," the man says, and he carries the mugs of beer back to the bar and sits down on one of the stools.

Onstage, Rick goes on plucking the strings of the bass as though he has absolutely nothing else on his mind.

In the beginning, Jennifer had thought that Rick's presence was a good thing. Her mother hadn't had a serious relationship in almost a year, and Mallory said that Rick made her feel like a teenager again. Jennifer, who was seventeen, didn't see how this could be a good thing, but Mallory seemed to think that it was.

And for a while, her mother acted genuinely happy—singing in the shower, buying flowers for the kitchen. There was no indication of the trouble ahead, and Jennifer didn't worry. There had been other breakups, of course, but this kind of prolonged grief was completely unprecedented.

Mallory's last boyfriend had been an investment banker with a bald spot the size of a silver dollar on the crown of his head. After they dated for a year, he asked Mallory to marry him, and she said no. The night they split up, Jennifer was sitting on her bed eating potato chips very slowly and counting backwards from one thousand in Spanish, trying not to listen to them carrying on in the living room.

The guy cried before he left, Jennifer could hear him; she plugged her ears and tried to think about something else. But that was the end of the drama: he left the house, and Mallory continued on with her life.

The band takes a break, and Mallory follows Rick into the hallway. By the time Jennifer reaches them, Mallory has him cornered.

"Just give me one more chance," she's pleading, and Jennifer feels a stab of embarrassment. A couple of the other band members are standing off to one side, pretending not to listen.

Jennifer touches Mallory's arm