Cheddars bar in downtown Columbia, Missouri, was already full by six o’clock in the evening when Sonia and Charo walked in.
Inside, the smell of liquor and tobacco permeated everything.
Dimly lit light bulbs hung above every booth, illuminating an assortment of all kinds of liquor.
There were patrons seated on the few available cozy booths, eating, chatting and drinking to the sound of old country music.
The music was loud, offensive to the ears. How these people could have a meaningful conversation in that kind of noise baffled Charo.
The drink bar was in the corner. Around it, there were smaller taller tables with stools around them facing the bar counter. The bar had no busy merchandise look but the shelves behind the counter had all kinds of bottles forming a neat stack of liquor selection.
The floor had nicely spaced tables surrounded by wooden seats. The walls were covered with paintings of nature and landscapes, from edge to edge.
“Look around. This is the American way of washing down a meal,” Sonia told Charo as they settled on the high stools near the bar counter. “I mean, just look around. Everybody is drinking some form of liquor.”
“I can tell,” Charo said, scanning the bar. “And it’s just the middle of the week. I wonder how Fridays or Saturdays look like here.”
“It’s almost cultural. People here love beer. Dinner is beer time.”
“In the village where I come from, we wash down meals with water. Not beer.”
“I have repeatedly told you that you’re not in Kenya anymore. This is America,” she quipped.
“You’ve got to get used to it.”
“I doubt they have my favorite beer here anyway.”
“Which one is that?”
“Tusker. It’s an East African brand.”
“Maybe not. Sam Adams is an outstanding food beer, though. A lot of people like it.”
“You’ll like it. You have no choice but to adapt anyway.”
“I know. Thanks for the reminder, though,” he quipped. Leaning his chest toward the countertop, he added. “I just don’t like beer here anyway.”
“Do you mean you don’t like American beers?” she asked.
“That’s not what I implied.”
“That’s what I heard.”
“That’s what you chose to hear.”
“Anyway, what are you going to drink?”
“I just wish they had Tusker.”
“Tusker? What’s this Tusker thing?”
“I just told you it’s a pale Lager beer popular in East Africa, especially Kenya. It’s very nice.”
“Sorry. No so-called Tusker here for you. Why don’t you try Mexican beers instead?”
“Dos Equis Amber is a good one. I’m sure you’ll like it.”
“Go ahead and order your beer. Get me a Pear Martini cocktail. Please watch over my stuff. I need to use the bathroom,” she said as she pushed her handbag closer to him.
A group of men jeered at her as she walked past their table toward the bathroom.
She ignored them with a wry smile that lacked neither warmth nor appreciation.
“It’s freaking cold out there,” Charo struck a conversation with the bartender as soon as Sonia walked away.
“It’s just the beginning of December. All indications point to a bad winter this time around,” the bartender said.
“White Christmas this year, I suppose.”
“Certainly not what I’m used to.”
“You have an accent. Where are you from?”
“Oh! What brings you to Columbia?” her voice was a cool soprano.
“School. I go to Columbia College.”
“What’s your native language?”
“That’s cool. Is this your first winter?”
“No. I have been in the United States for a year now. Seen the wintry weather once already.”
“That’s nice. What can I get you to drink?”
“What beers do you have?”
“At Cheddars, a lot of our beers come from Mexico. Corona is a good one. It’s smooth. But Sam Adams beats them all. It’s American beer.”
“Do you want that?”
He couldn’t possibly resist the allure of trying something new. “I will try it.”
She sneaked a sideways glance at him.
“Tall?” she asked, lifting the glass for him to see.
“Yes. And also make a Pear Martini for my friend.”
“Stirred or shaken?”
“Shaken, I believe.”
“You got it.”
The bartender went through the business of preparing the martini as he talked to her.
“What’s in that? Water and an olive?” Charo asked another lady nursing a drink at the bar two seats from him.
His question was merely in jest.
“This is a virgin martini,” she replied, then quickly shifted her glance to her glass.
“Sounds delicious, Miss … uh …”
“Cecile,” she replied, looking him in the eye.
She may not seem like it at first impression, but Cecile’s pretty ambitious. There are still several rungs of the corporate ladder left that she wants to climb.
They shook hands. “I’m Charo. Nice meeting you. You look nice in that dress.”
“Oh, thank you. Nice meeting you as well.”
“You said virgin martini, right?”
“Yes. I’d say it’s my favorite drink,” she said, smiling warmly.
“I can tell,” he said, taking stock of her features. “Are you here on your own?”
“Yeah. Giving myself a treat after a hectic day at work.”
“Where do you work?”
“Our corporate office is about five blocks from here. It’s a good company. I would like to secure my future stability with them. I don’t know yet. But I’m thinking about it.” There was a subtle trace of wistfulness in her voice.
He took a moment to think.
“What’s the name of your company?” he asked.
Feeling a little playful, she gently tickled the side of her glass with her straw. “Columbia Intel Inc.,” she said.
“What do you do for them?” he asked, surprised at her pride with her workplace.
“I work at the Cyber Security Operations department. You know, the world is a more dangerous place now. Technology has become increasingly sophisticated. Government agencies and companies strive to protect their interests from hackers and espionage.”
“I see. I am impressed,” he said, nodding.
“It’s a good job, and I like this town too. I’m not a big city girl, you know. If I meet someone, get married and settle down here, future promotions ain’t gonna force me to move.”
“This is a really small town.”
“Of course many people say this is a small town and there’s not much to do here, but I disagree. I know I can get where I wanna go and secure my financial future right here in this town,” she said, chuckling briefly, then added, “I really want to get this phase behind me before my good looks start fading.”
Charo smiled at that mental image.
“You have an interesting way of looking at life,” he responded, smiling.
“Yes. I wonder why you make a big deal out of your looks. You’re so beautiful and smart.”
“It could be that potential suitors aren’t dating you because you might hack into their private lives. In any case, you wouldn’t meet any decent man in this bar. Not that I don’t qualify but I’m just saying.”
Cecile looked at Charo with a puzzled expression, clearly having expected a different response.
They both got a good laugh out of that, neither of them really knowing how to continue the conversation.
“Am I lying?” came out as the only thing he could say in the circumstance.
“You’re probably right,” Cecile said, amid laughter.
“I hate the snow,” the bartender’s voice interrupted his conversation with Cecile.
Cecile let out an audible sigh, giving the bartender a meek side glance.
“I know. The big fat fluffy snow we had yesterday, huh!” Charo said, turning to look at the bartender. “Snow piled up to the height of my window-sill yesterday.”
“I know. I spent almost twenty minutes shoveling snow from my driveway this morning,” she said, sliding a glass of beer forward to Charo.
“That’s the boring part. It’s nice when it’s snowing. But afterward, everything sucks.”
“True,” Cecile said, letting out a forced giggle.
“This is a small town too. So there’s little to do here. It can be boring,” Charo said.
“It is very small,” she agreed. “Whenever I want to do anything exciting, I usually go to St. Louis. It’s about two hours away but it’s a fun place.”
“Okay. You know, I haven’t met anybody from East Africa here. I have only met Congolese and Nigerians here on campus. I’m probably the only Kenyan in this town. How long have you lived here?”
“I was born south of here. Just a mile down Providence Road. Never been to any other state.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“Wow. What keeps you grounded like that?”
“My parents. They actually live two streets from my house. I can literally throw a stone onto their front porch from my house.”
“I don’t have a lot of friends here. Plus, I hate driving long distances.”
“Do you have a family?”
“Y-yes. I’m a single mother with a small family, but a family nonetheless. I have two sons aged ten and thirteen.”
She looked young. He would never have guessed she had given birth not to one, but to two grown kids.
“That’s nice. At least they keep you company,” he said, teasing her with a smile.
“That’s right. And busy. What about you? Is your family here with you?” she asked.
“No. All my siblings are at home.”
“That must be hard.”
“Sure. Not only is it hard, but lonely as well. To live thousands of miles away from family is tough. It makes me emotional sometimes, you know. It’s been two years of not seeing my folks or siblings.”
“How many siblings do you have?”
“I have two sisters.”
“One is older. The other is my twin,” he replied.
The hop aroma and caramel sweet notes from the Sam Adams beer made him take another sip even though he didn’t like the strong piney aftertaste it left in his mouth.
“Oh! You have a twin?” she was elated.
“That’s nice. Are both your sisters in school too?” she asked.
“Yes. My twin sister is in college. She’s called Rachel. We have no idea where Helena, my older sister, went to. She disappeared when we were really little.”
“Oh! That’s sad. Not even a trace?”
“Do your parents know what happened to her?”
“My mother died when I was barely a day old. My father died when I was about four years old. I can barely remember his face. The people who took her away don’t want to talk to us.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that.”
The bartender placed a glass of Martini and some napkins in front of him.
“Thank you. Several years have passed since they passed away. Though the gap lingers on, time has helped us heal from the loss.”
“As long as you are coping well, that’s all you need.”
“That’s right. I play soccer for the Cougars, so that helps a lot. I have met amazing people in my team who keep me going when loneliness becomes overbearing.”
“I’m glad you’ve got people around you. The last thing you want is to be miserable because of loneliness. Do you know where your older sister lives?”
“If I knew, I would have gone there to look for her ages ago. Rachel and I are still hoping we would find her soon.”
“How old is she?”
“I’m not sure. But I guess she could be about three years older than us.”
“Your upbringing must have been hard.”
“Well, far from that. Rachel and I were lucky to live with a very nice uncle—Uncle Okumu. He’s all we could ever ask from God. So loving and caring.”
“I miss him a lot. Though he too had marital problems, he loved us. I feel homesick when I think of him and my sister.”
“I bet,” the bartender replied.
“What’s your name?” Charo asked.
“Oh! I’m Pat,” she replied.
“I’m Charo. Nice meeting you, Pat!” he smiled at her, extending a hand for a shake just as Sonia returned.
“What are you two talking about?” Sonia’s question caught Charo unprepared.
“What’s wrong?” His face stayed frowned for a moment, looking at her face, searching for the implied intention.
“I just want to know what’s going on between you two.” She rolled her eyes toward Pat in that kind of gesture that said: “Keep off my man.”
“Can’t I talk to anybody?” he whispered across her face, glancing feebly at Cecile and back at Pat.
“It depends on the context,” Sonia’s response was terse.
“Well, she was serving me a beer. She was making you a martini. Are those good enough reasons?”
Before Charo knew it, Sonia was laying it on him. “Don’t talk to the women in this bar,” she said, sipping her drink.
Her tone hurt his ears.
“Why?” he asked.
Having known her, he half expected her to angrily walk out. Instead, she stayed and began lecturing him.
“Don’t be fooled by their smiles, okay? Trust me. I know them. They are not good people,” her reply was a forceful push through her twisted mouth.
She’s jealous, he thought.
“What are you talking about?” he asked.
“You came here with me, okay! I’m not sure why all of a sudden you found her interesting to talk and smile with.”
“Well, I wasn’t flirting with her. That I can tell you.”
“That’s beside my point,” Sonia responded nonchalantly as she ordered another glass of Pear Martini cocktail. “I hate being disrespected, okay. That’s what I’m disgusted about. I thought you would be courteous enough not to admire these women. But it seems I was wrong about you.”
“I haven’t done anything. I just had a normal conversation while waiting for you to return. Was that wrong?”
“Very!” She responded as she lifted the glass Pat had placed in front of her toward her mouth.
“The kitchen is almost closing,” Pat interrupted their conversation. “This is the last chance to order food if you’d like to. Here is our menu.”
“Okay. Give us a moment,” he said as he looked through the menu.
“No worries,” Pat said.
“I already know what I want. I will have a chicken quesadilla. Rice and beans on the side,” Sonia said without looking at Pat.
After a moment, he got Pat’s attention. “I’ll have a fajita burrito, with beef. She will have a chicken quesadilla.”
“Yes. Maybe add some guacamole.”
Pat turned her notepad. “And guacamole. Got it.”
“You are welcome. Any more drinks?”
“No. We are good,” Charo replied. “Thank you.”
“I will bring guacamole and chips to start you off.”
“I said I wanted it with rice and beans on the side,” Sonia interjected, looking into Charo’s eyes.
“That’s how it’s served, Sonia. She knows,” Charo responded.
“No, she doesn’t. Did you tell her?”
“Believe me, rice and beans come on the side.”
“But still, you have to remind her. You didn’t.”
He didn’t respond.
By the time the bar closed, she had finished four glasses of martini, complained about taxes, tips and the generous serving of bell peppers in Charo’s food, talked about her ex-boyfriends, and shared how much she hated some of her professors.
All he offered was a soundless sigh.
After more than three hours of drinking, she had had enough.
“I’m tipsy. I need to go home,” she lamented.
“I’ll take you home,” he offered.
“Hey, I’m going with you to your apartment. No chance in this world you’ll invite this woman to your apartment when I’m not there. Let’s get out of here.”
In the cab toward his apartment, she spent the whole time sharing all her frustration about men. Just like the cab driver, Charo too had no choice but to listen.
Start writing here…