by Kristin Ohlson.

This essay originally appeared in Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology

The men came every day, arriving as the daytime manager slid back the bolt on the front door. They walked into a darkness so solid they’d tip their heads as if dodging a blow. They knew the path even in the gloom; they’d edge past the tables in the main dining room, skirt the coffee machines and pinball games in the second dining room, rap on the doors to the kitchen, glance at the shattered door to the women’s bathroom, then emerge into the waterlogged light of the back bar. The Cuyahoga River was just outside, so dirty then that I washed off its spittle with soap if any happened to land on me. Marty told me that he had once seen a dead baby float by after a storm — actually, he said “dead nigger baby” — but he might have said it just to enrage me.

If the men were year-round regulars, they’d take the same places in the back bar every day. The two old guys, Manhattans at a two-top, affable big tippers; I was the highlight of their day and happy to oblige. A heavy, red-nosed salesman took the first barstool, a big-headed piece of television talent nabbed the next, and a line of businessmen from the neighborhood filled up the rest of the bar. Theirs wasn’t a story-swapping, back-slapping fraternity. Aside from my two sweet old men, the back bar guys were a grim bunch who made spiritless commentary about politics and bitter jokes about women. They seemed to take little note of each other, but when one would arrive later than usual, they’d all pick up their heads and the late one would offer a quick excuse as he hoisted himself onto his stool.

Val was only a fair-weather regular, even though he worked right across the street. I think he might have come year round if it weren’t for the prospect of eating lunch in that tight little room with those men who were so unlike him. He came in the spring, when the weather got warmer and the crowd spilled outside and across the deck.

Summer nights were wild. There was always a band playing in either the main room or out on the deck, and the place was packed. Many people parked cars in the big wasteland next to the railroad tracks; others plowed their boats up the river  and tied them alongside the deck, sometimes five or six deep. There was lots of drinking, but little fighting; too many off-duty cops were around for a fight to build much momentum. Every once in a while, someone fell in the river. Lots of ashtrays wound up there too, as people winged them like Frisbees at the rats.

Marty and the other owners called the riverborne customers “boat pigs,” but then again, there weren’t many people they liked. They welcomed the back bar regulars and the off-duty cops; everyone else was tolerated as the price of doing business. Once a group of Japanese tourists came in and I heard one of the owners stomping around, muttering about the damned Nips. I called him a racist, and he drew back. “Krissie,” he said in a shocked voice, “I’m not a racist. I hate everyone.” Another time I failed to screw on the top of a mustard container right, and it squirted yellow goo when a customer started to fix up his hot dog. The owners went to tell the guy they’d dry clean his jacket. When they returned to the kitchen, they were furious with him for having been the victim of my error. “What did we tell you, Krissie?” they said. “The customer is always an asshole.”

I have no memory of the women who came as customers, but I remember the other women who worked there. The graphic artist who served drinks in the back bar with Marty. The sweet, earnest schoolteacher on summer break who drew the adoration of one of the off-duty cops, a scary guy who wore a swastika and stormed small towns with his motorcycle pals. The multiply pierced girl, a member of Mensa, whose family had a business packaging carnival trinkets. We were intersecting each other’s lives at odd points, on furlough from ordinary pursuits — school or marriage or career — and for a while I had the notion that every woman should spend some time in a job like this where the work is all restless motion, where you glance off people’s lives as you bring them their beer and fries, where you walk back and forth from gloom into sunshine, where the music coming over the loudspeaker makes you dance your way to the tables, your hips jingling change, your neck and arms reflected in the tray you hold high over your head. You have secret knowledge of what the cooks are up to in the kitchen, you know what happens in the parking lot late at night, you know there are dark rooms in this building that no one imagines, but you’re the emissary of good times. You smile and you flirt and you are paid.

When I first went to apply for this job, I was drawn by one of the few ads in the paper that was about something I thought I could do. My husband had just moved out of town. I was alone with my two children in the little yellow house on the west side of Cleveland, and I had no friends. It was all right. It was a new life. I was hired, spent the first few days training, and after that I was a good waitress. It had been a long time since I had been good at something.

Marty was my boss. He pointed out what needed to be done in a tone that suggested I might never catch on and that it didn’t much matter anyway. There was no conversation between us. He watched my early ineptitude with what seemed like scorn, but that may have been the only way he wanted his face read. I was afraid of him at first, but got used to him after working there a few months. Then we started to fight.

We fought all the time. In his little back bar fiefdom, he and his semi-circle of soured men had something vile to say about everyone. Marty had a cartoon taped to the wall that showed a man and a woman in bed, the man saying something like, “Respect you in the morning? I don’t even respect you now!” and that pretty much served as their statement of principle. When they talked about politics or city doings, they’d usually have something to say about niggers or Polacks or rednecks. Once, one of them even made some laudatory crack about Auschwitz that made me slam down a tray and walk out. I was not long out of political activism, in which I spent my days working on rent strikes or picketing grocers that sold scab grapes or demonstrating against a Cleveland cop who had gunned down a young black man. Somehow, I had wound up in the enemy camp.

But I liked the work and the grittiness of the place, the party atmosphere at night, the thrilling proximity of these off-duty cops who might once have shoved me against a wall and were now asking for extra sugar. I especially liked going at it with Marty. We’d argue up and down the halls and into the kitchen, stopping when the crowds came, continuing the conflict by facial expression alone — my sneers and his smirks — and starting up again when the customers dwindled to a handful. I was comfortable in my hatred until one morning, when I found him hosing the cups and cigarette butts and napkins from a wild Friday night into the river. I shouted that I was going to report him to the EPA. He replied without even looking up, “Oh, come on. You know you like me.”

I was silenced by this, standing in the not-yet warm sun, surrounded by the smell of water on concrete and beyond that, the midsummer stench of the river. I knew it was true, but I had no idea why. Sexual attraction didn’t explain it. Marty was far from the physical type that draws my eye (that’s where Val comes into this story), and he wasn’t even an appealing version of blond and blue-eyed. His hair was combed in sharp, aggressive angles, his eyes were small and tight, he wore the collar of his shirt turned up and always had a cocktail straw twitching at the side of his mouth. I don’t think I was his type, either. Still, there was something between us, some mysterious wire of affinity.

Val became one of the regulars at the beginning of my second summer. He always came alone. He was friendly and courteous, a slight man with luminous black hair and delicate hands stained by his work. He was an artist who had turned to painting signs for a living;  he liked his small simple life at home with his parents; he thought long before he answered my questions. Soon I found myself looking around for him when the place opened up for business, my blood quickening as I watched him unfold his napkin. I discovered that he was looking for me, too. I’d see him scan the deck, stare into the glassy darkness of the main room, glance into the back bar; I saw that his eyes fixed on me as I walked into the light. When I went back into the building and turned to look, I could see him watching the point of my disappearance, waiting.

This was the summer that I would turn 30, and I thought my life was breaking free of all the wrong moves of the past ten years. I told everyone that I was going back to school in the fall. I imagined that I could do it all — go to class in the day, work the river place at night. I don’t know what I thought I would do with my children.

I started to see Val after work, but things didn’t work out. For all his dreamy gazing at me, he seemed uncomfortable when the two of us were actually alone. After a few nights of his hesitations, I’d decide that I had misunderstood everything, but then the next day at work, he’d act as if he only came alive when I was walking across the deck. One night we went to a series of places — a park down by the river, a restaurant, a bar, a friend’s apartment — then wound up back at my house wrestling around on the couch. We heard my son start to cry upstairs and broke away from each other.

My husband came back a week after that last failed date. He had become thin and sickly with misery during our separation, and he wanted me and our marriage back again. After a brief period of resistance I gave in. I gave in because of our children and our families; these were the only things I was sure of. I didn’t love my husband then, although I did come to love him again later.

And I rarely think of Val now. When I decided to go back to my husband, I walked over to Val’s studio and told him. I wanted him to seize my hands and cry, “No! No!” His eyes shone with what could have been tears, but he didn’t try to talk me out of it. In the months after, my passion for him died away. It wasn’t useful to me, and it’s not even a curiosity to me now. I can remember all the things that drew me to Val — the dark eyes, the way he applied his delicate fingers to his trade, the mysterious distance — but they don’t add up to a feeling.

But I still think about Marty. I’m reminded of him whenever I see men glower around a bar. I think about him when I go out to eat or drink — despite the smiling hostess, I know that the cooks might be cursing the food, the bartenders breathing dismay into the drinks. I know that the unlikeliest of people can get in the people business. There’s a blues club downtown and years later someone told me that Marty was working there. I stopped once and asked about him and left my name. I went again a few months later and the bartender told me he had moved on. He drew a little map on a napkin for me, but by the time I found the place Marty was supposed to be working, it had closed.

Why did I look for him? It’s common enough to fall in and out of love with someone — I do it all the time — but to like and be liked by someone you hate on principle is an enduring wonder. I still get a thrill thinking about that place by the river: the off-duty cops shooting rats in the parking lot, the cooks sweating and singing and flinging burned shrimp at the wall. Marty and me. All our magnificent glares.