It would be Chinese food tonight. My return flight from Philadelphia to Atlanta always left from either the B or C terminal and each had only one restaurant, this one and one with a rock music theme where I always had a burger. By the time I got this far I was always so tired from the lines at airport security and the hassle of traffic and dropping off my rental car that I didn't much care what I ate.
The restaurant was packed but there was one open stool on the far side of the bar, the one right next to the station where the waitresses picked up drinks. Watching the waitresses and bartenders was one of the pluses about the place, and come to think of it about the rock music/burger place too, where the girls dressed exactly the same way. All in black, with tight jeans or slacks and a sleeveless knit top that usually left a little bit of tummy showing.
After I squeezed into the spot and flagged down a waitress to order a beer and ask for a menu, the guy next to me turned and stuck out his hand.
"Hi. I'm John and this is Sean," he said, nodding at the guy to his right. Both of them looked ten years younger than I was, in their twenties. Both were grinning and looked like they had a sizeable head start on me in alcohol consumption. John announced that he was from Ohio and that Sean was from England, and that both of them had missed connections hours earlier.
"I'm Paul," I said, shaking John's hand and nodding at Sean. Both were wearing jeans and tee shirts and were smoking, like just about everyone else in the bar except me.
I don't usually like it when strangers talk to me, especially that aggressively, but John was hard to resent. He had that open, big-lovable-puppy quality and knew it - able to be intrusive without offending. A born salesman. He was a big guy, maybe 6'3", and it turned out he played high school football and a couple of years of small college ball, before he realized that he "wasn't good enough". He was on a first-name basis with all three of the girl bartenders and most of the customers within earshot. There was a forty-something businesswoman named Mary on the other side of Sean, and a chain-smoking grandmother next to her. I think her name was Betty.
Sean was quieter and closer my size, a little over six feet. He was clearly coat-tailing on John's charm and enjoying it, especially the extra attention we were getting from the bartenders. I recognized Brenda, a brunette in her late twenties, from earlier visits. She was tall and slim, and definitely spent serious time in a gym. Her jeans were skintight and really low-cut and she had a big-handled metal bottle opener sticking out of the waistband in the back, nestled between amazing butt cheeks she could have used to crack walnuts.
Marilee was about the same age, blonde and very pretty in a hard-edged, tough way. Her hair was fairly short and spiked on top, and she had a huge tattoo on the small of her back.
Our waitress was Josie. She looked five years younger than the other two, and... different. The bar was packed and all three were busy, but where Brenda and Marilee oozed experienced efficiency and detachment, Josie looked frantic and flustered, eyes a little glazed. She was pretty, in her own way maybe prettier than Marilee. Nice eyes, light brown hair pulled back from her face on the sides and loose on her shoulders in the back. Kind of like a grown up Shirley Temple, with features more cute than beautiful. Josie had hips that were maybe a touch too wide, but not heavy - just feminine. Small waist for her frame, and though her bare arms and shoulders weren't defined like Marilee and Brenda's, they were firm and smooth. And she had a great rack that bounced just a little when she ran around behind the bar.
I had an hour and a half to kill before my flight, so I decided to relax and enjoy the show, which mainly consisted of John flirting with the bartenders and with Mary, who worked for an investment banking firm in New York. Sean worked in construction and was on his way to visit relatives in Chicago. I told John that I was a lawyer and talked too much about my job and personal life. I'd been divorced for two years and it still irritated me more than I usually admitted; other than that I didn't have much of a personal life.
By that time I was on my fourth beer, my dinner was finished and the cigarette smoke was no longer bothering me. The bar was clearing out a little; there were a half-dozen open stools, including Betty the grandmother's. Josie was starting to calm down, and when she had time she stood by the cash register across from us pretending not to listen. I'd decided that she had a pretty nice butt.
Forty minutes before his flight John announced that it was time for him to get going, and told Josie to settle his tab. While she was busy at the register, Marilee walked by.
"So Marilee, you going to give me your number?" John asked, loud enough so the whole group could hear it. Marilee rolled her eyes and shook her head. John gave her his best sad puppy-dog look.
"When I come through here again you can show me the town. Come on, we'll have fun!" he said. Marilee looked impressed by his act but shook her head again.
"Come on, Marilee. Give me your number. You're not going to embarrass me in front of my new friends, are you?" he cajoled. She laughed, opened a couple of beers for other customers and walked away.
"I think she just did," I said, smiling. John took up the challenge.
"Hey Josie. Give me your number," he said, as she handed him his change. She looked surprised, blinking a couple of times.
"I lost my cell phone and I don't have the new one. I don't know what the number will be," she said.
"Tell them you want the same number. Come on, we'll have fun. You can show me the sights," John said.
"Okay," Josie replied. She went over by the register for a minute and returned with a bar napkin, neatly folded. She handed it to him, smiling nervously. She wiped her hands on the hips of her pants, and backed away. She bumped into Brenda, apologized and then escaped toward the other side of the bar.
I was amazed. Mary the investment banker's mouth was hanging open.
John smiled at me. "I had to try for the cute one first," he explained.
"I don't know, I think you got the cute one," I said, shaking my head.
"Watch my bag, okay? I've got to pee," John said, then hurried off.
"Can you believe that guy?" I asked Sean. "Talk about shameless, and it actually worked! I wonder if he'd have hit on Brenda next."
Sean nodded. "I agree with you about Josie. I like her way better than Marilee. More... genuine."
John came back and shook hands with everyone. Josie reappeared.
"So you'll call me?" she asked quietly. John reached over and squeezed her shoulder.
"Sure. Next week. We'll have a blast," he promised, and then left.
After that things quieted down. Sean and Mary both left, and I gave Josie a credit card to settle my tab. When she brought the receipt back she looked nervous, or self-conscious; I assumed because I'd witnessed the whole episode with John.
"Man, it's hot in here. My hair can't take the heat," she said, running a hand over the loose curls at the back of her neck. I added a healthy tip to the bill and signed it.
"Your hair looks great, Josie. Thanks for everything." I stood, then reached down for my laptop case.
On the floor next to it was a bar napkin. Neatly folded in half. I palmed it and grabbed my computer, then waited until I was out of the restaurant before I looked.
Instead of dotting the "i" she drew a little flower over it. I stuck the napkin in my pocket and headed for my gate.
After the plane took off I tried to sleep, but couldn't. I kept thinking about John, and Josie. He could have dropped the napkin by accident, but I sure wouldn't have. The more I thought about it, I decided it had all been a game for John. He probably never intended to call either Marilee or Josie. Maybe he wasn't even coming back to Philadelphia, and if he did the last thing he needed was female companionship. A guy like John, with his smooth line of bull and all that charm could get laid whenever he wanted to, by just about any girl he wanted. For him the challenge was getting a stranger, especially one that was on the job at the time, to agree to go out with him.
And what would possess Josie to give John her phone number? The guy could be a serial rapist for all she knew. She had to have heard him ask Marilee first, and get shot down. She was such a pretty girl, surely she had more self-respect than that.
Life was funny that way. You cross paths with strangers every day; you see a little slice of their lives but have no idea where they've been or where they're going. John could be rapist, or he could be studying for the priesthood. He might have been sincere about Marilee and Josie, liking them both, or could have been playing a macho game with his buddies where you get five points for a bartender. Josie could be what she seemed; sweet, a little naïve, and lonely. Or she could be some nymphomaniac who picked up guys in the bar all the time. I would never know.
.... There is more of this story ...