Walter still didn’t understand why Victoria felt the need to spit in his beer.
When they were dating, they kissed all the time. Deeply, nearly always using their tongues. In the three years they were together, he must have swallowed several pints’ worth of her saliva. It wasn’t like a few drops of it here and there were going to hurt him.
She must have realized that, but it didn’t stop her from leaving him a little present every so often, when she thought he wasn’t looking. He could have just ordered bottles instead, keeping his beverages free of her expectorate, but thought the lager on tap tasted better.
Truth be told, he also liked that she still cared enough to be mad at him.
Victoria went by Vicki when they first met, about twenty feet from the table where he currently sat. She was still in school then, and the manager stuck her with the worst shifts. Tuesday and Wednesday during the day, and Sunday from opening until the midday shift change. There weren’t a lot of tips to be earned in those hours, but Vicki could usually get most of her studying done behind the bar. The manager rarely came around; when he did, he was often too distracted to notice whether she was going through receipt books or notebooks from her freshman psychology class.
The reason she met Walter in the first place was he used to stop in early on Sunday mornings, still running on adrenaline from gigs that had wrapped up a few hours earlier. He couldn’t play on a full stomach, and was usually famished―and a little tipsy from after-set shots―by the time the city bus brought him back to his apartment complex, where the bar downstairs was already serving breakfast to the early crowd watching overseas soccer.
Walter was just starting out too, so his band usually played the last slot at the latest of late-night bars, performing familiar covers to the city’s most inebriated, the hordes that moved mindlessly to a second location in their desperate attempts to find a third.
“You play music?” were the first words she ever asked him, though the battered guitar case occupying the spot next to him would have been an odd choice otherwise.
“A little bit. We were at the Oasis last night. Me and my band.” Walter didn’t like to brag, but he’d been a proficient guitarist since he was eleven, when he dropped out of his school’s orchestra to try his hand at a flashier instrument. That choice meant he never learned to read music properly, but his ear was good enough that he could learn most songs with minimal practice.
Plus, the Oasis was the name of a respected venue across town, and also that of the dive bar that booked his band.
“What’ll you have?” The first time Vicki took his order, he chose a grilled cheese sandwich and split pea soup, which the bar served in a ceramic crock with extra croutons, and a weak lager that functioned as his hair of the dog.
While the food was serviceable, Vicki was enough of a draw that Walter made sure to find his way back the following week. He ordered that same thing four consecutive Sunday mornings, building enough rapport with the young waitress that he felt comfortable asking if she’d like to go see a movie when her shift ended.
A lot of things had changed in the years since.
Dozens of bar employees had come and gone, and as Vicki’s seniority increased, so did the quality of her shifts—and with that, the number of tips she could earn in a night. As her wages climbed from terrible to mediocre, she decided she was earning enough to justify taking a semester off from school. “Just while I save up,” she always told Walter, though he didn’t mind her being around a few more hours every week. Over time, she switched to a hairstyle she considered more professional, traded her black tanktops for black t-shirts, and started using her full first name. She was still saving up the entire time they were together, always promising to enroll next semester; as far as Walter knew, that hadn’t changed.
Similarly, Walter and his band might not have impressed many people with their four-hour cover sets, but the owner of the Oasis was sufficiently pleased to book them at his other properties, in primetime slots, on the condition that they play all his favorites and pick a less ridiculous name. What had been Metaphysical Sandwich became the Westside Quartet, even though none of its members hailed from or lived anywhere near the west side. The setlists became dominated by the kind of 1980s songs that always inspired bar crowds to sing, if not exactly along, in short bursts of recognition.
Walter understood the reality that a musician could only get so far playing other people’s songs. He also knew he wasn’t a songwriter, and didn’t have whatever it was that told someone how to recognize a good one. Despite that, he spent most of his free time during the day sitting in his familiar seat at the bar with a notebook, trying to find inspiration. He continued to do that, though he never found a muse among the nondescript businessmen getting a quick bite before hurrying back to work or the group of old ladies who met nearly every day to order sandwiches and play mahjong.
He also drank less, ever since he realized how often Victoria had covered his tab over the years, and how little disposable income he actually had. She still poured all the drinks and ran the register, though now he always gave his order to someone else.
The biggest change, of course, was Victoria dumping him about eighteen months ago, after a particularly uncomfortable exchange.
Their friends often described their relationship as “passionate,” and Walter thought that was true, for good and ill. It was a partnership with the animal attraction of two people still early in their physical primes, and the frequent arguments of two people not yet in their emotional ones.
“What are we even fighting about?” he yelled the night she left him for good.
Walter didn’t think he’d been that bad of a boyfriend. He never cheated on Vicki, or flirted with other women around her. The one time she teased him about looking at a female singer’s rump, he pointed out he was only trying to read the setlist on the floor next to her. Which was true. He never ran her down behind her back, and felt like he was supportive of her.
He told her all that, and a dozen other things in his defense; none of them mattered.
The issue, as she explained it, was how little he had changed. “You’re still playing the same bullshit gigs you were when we met.” It wasn’t strictly true; he played more often and at better time spots, but the venues stayed familiar.
“You even order the same fucking thing every time you come into the fucking bar.” She had him there, though he didn’t understand why it was a problem. He ordered it because he liked it, and eating there meant more time around Victoria. Walter thought of that as sweet; she obviously disagreed. “Don’t you have anything else to do during the day? You’re not going to make it as a musician. Maybe you should go back to school.”
The line that did it, though, was when he suggested she wasn’t one to talk on that front. “Maybe you should. You’re not any different.” Looking back, Walter thought the calm way he said it might have done more than the sentiment itself to end their relationship.
It took a few weeks before Walter started coming back to the bar, though he wished there was another place near his apartment with decent food. Whatever awkwardness he felt at the beginning, when he wasn’t sure if he and Victoria might have another chance in them, faded after a few visits. He still ate his soup and failed to write, she still spent her days behind the same bar, and her occasional spit was the only reminder of how different that routine once felt.