Devil’s Lake

Spring 2017 Issue

Liana Imam: Bartenders I’ve Known

White Nights

Hey girl, says the door girl, like she knows me, and she might. Takes my thrifted Marc Jacobs coat and puts it in a closet right with all the new ones. Seats me near the service bar, middle of the action, and behind that bar is some smiling clean face, all game.

While it’s slow we chatter, share the non-stories we read in the Wednesday Times. The white course at a concept dinner, Marconas and velouté and that crucial piece of mise: ‘Please, shut up’ on a little card. Everybody’s dream to say that during service, he says, eyes not big enough to roll around this room. He’s making me a nice white drink, gin fizz, too nice.

Four-minute constant shake, he says, pouring, the head rising inches, inches above the highball rim. I wonder what he does to practice. One of those dreamy silky Juney nights. I lick up the foam on top.

Gin velouté, I say, all smirks, and he sticks in a finger and it falls like soufflé.

After-hours at the Cherry Tavern, shooting Bacardi and loosening his Hermes tie, knees knocking as we swivel the torn-up stools. There’s a game of pool left half-played on the table and we agree this is a sign of disgusting privilege. We agree we would never, never do something like that. It’s 4:30am: the bargaining hour. The bartender lets him roll a joint in the locked bright room but doesn’t let us light it. We try to argue but we’ve lost some essential magic here; the bartender sick of us now and us just sick.

Outside, Tompkins Square adjacent, smoking the J and feeling 90s chic. Referencing that girl artist who collected crack vials from these corners, lined up now and annotated on white canvas at the new Whitney.

You know, I say, glowy, messy, putting the joint and my fingers on his mouth, Ethan Hawke wrote a novel and that bar is a character.

Is that so, he says, reaching to smooth hair behind my ears, light shirtsleeves peaking from his jacket, blink of cufflinks.

Actually, Ethan Hawke wrote two novels but I’ve only read the one, I say, and who cares, and now it’s his mouth by my ear and soft hiccup laughs like I’ve told him this before. Some finite number of million people in Manhattan and all of them were once a bartender.


Calling up so unceremonious and my head so turned already, Percocet and gin today but was it gimlets or round wet martinis. Answer the buzz without looking at names or digits, timeframe, no details. What do you need tonight baby? At a bar in the Park Slope of San Francisco, we drank shots of the Botanist with Ango floats between our IPAs.

And again: You awake babe? Is this my drug dealer or is it the married man who likes seeing my tits on tiny screens while he drinks scotch near the Pacific Ocean?

It’s the second one.

Such funny, unflattering non-gifts men just assume you will take, when offered. Like they’re rising to some occasion, some calling or station. And here I go, taking them into my sweet clean girl hands because I do think—unironically, gender neutrally—how nice, being thought of. His smile spread over Facetime and the Crossfitted abs, LA house white and sprawled like the film version of a James Ellroy novel and a woman tucked into some curve of it, wearing black, looking not unlike me, available for use. How pure and spectacular that instead he calls me. How specific, that impulse.

Babe, I say. Ways we affirm one another. Gin float feeling high up above my head.

Late where you are, he says, voice round and I take my top off onscreen before he can ask. Gifts.

New York’s a vampire, and LA . . . I trail off, losing the thread. Fuck me, LA’s Lance Armstrong.

We play. We’re quiet. We’d met on vacation, at a wedding. Not his. The Botanist with bitters, staring and staring. Kissing in the photo booth and I’d unzipped my dress halfway to stash the strip in its close bodice. Let him bite a nipple. And we never fucked, just looked, pretending.

He says, after, We can have other phone calls too sometimes.

Oh yeah, what would you ask me.

I’d see what you did today.

Drank Aviations, I say, lofty. Who knows.

See how easy, he says, showing me his hand at his waistband, or where a waistband would be.

Are you gonna sleep with me on you, I ask, which I love to ask. The perks of being disembodied. He’ll just smell like himself.


At the Roxy there’s champagne and his body, beautiful body, I can’t stop giggling into its hard pale chest. He’s handing me glasses in the most wonderful way, from the stem, and looking me right in the eye with every first gulp. And every last.

We don’t even argue about who will call the Uber because he already has. Spinning to his Greenpoint address with A$AP on the Bluetooth sync.

The coke costs two hundred eighty dollars and he has all the cash. It arrives as a bright white sphere. The Rock of Gibraltar, he says, presentational, pushing it out of the bag to powder it all at once. Loosely wrapping it in parchment paper so it stays close till it’s in smaller pieces, strategy I’d never dream. When it’s like that in a fluffy pile on a book about the colored tiling in Morocco it’s hard to see how it will all fit back in the little bag. It won’t, but he guesses it won’t need to.

He floats me a key and asks don’t I agree, and I do. I love saying yes to him.

More friends cab over, invited, and pass him bills for lines. We’re making back an investment here and smiling to each other with our suburban-raised white teeth all shining, in on a secret that is anything but. Cracking ice and pouring mezcal, I knock around and look beautiful for people, like his Eames chairs do.

White Houses

Wake up sticky, feel the skin on my lips tug and tear as I pop my jaw, yawn, roll. In a not-mine white tee. Starfished in a very big bed, four-poster, space everywhere to stretch. In a bar the night before, he’d come up close beside me, reciting shards of Portrait of the Artist he’d looked up on his phone. What a wonder, the public domain. I imagine that keyword search: women, Irish, repressed, guilty.

Roll to the bed’s edge, experimentally standing. Air conditioned boy-room, slick pine floors. It feels nice to be upright even if I’m not sure where else to go. I think I know the basic options: bathroom, kitchen, exit. His walls very eggshell, painted by a landlord, impersonal. Nice bedframe that looks made, not produced. White sheets and framed silk screens, rare show posters.

I stretch wide, kick each leg up toward each ear. He walks back in with some tumblers on a tray, bottle of cava and a little dish of bleachy pills. Sets the tray on his desk by the window. “Nice,” he says, brushing my thigh with a few fingers, pouring. “I ran through my script,” he confesses, “so it’s just Aspirin. Low-dose.”

He puts a glass in my left hand and then turns my right palm over, making a cup. “How many you want?”

“How many are you having?”

“Six,” he says, counting them out, swallowing them with his cava, fine clear-white bubbles rushing up the glass.

“Me too, please,” I say, and he drops them one by one into my willing hand.

Bare torso, casually fit; I’m wearing his shirt from yesterday, I can see that now. I take the white pills and drink the wine down. We’re looking at each other and smiling and then, more exhaustion than seduction, I get back in bed, against the wall, under his down though it’s near July. Central air is general all over the Midwest. I hear him set the glasses down, some rustled pacing, then the shower going on.

I doze or I don’t, soft summer light through the window flicks and floods, time is allusive. I feel him pull eventually in beside and then against me, flat cool hand pressed to my sternum, sure and calm and rhythmic. It feels nice and when it’s too late anyway he breathes, “You awake babe?”

Saturday at the Mansion

Hacking cough in the high white kitchen, doubled toward the floor. He’s looking stricken. His mother goes for a lozenge. She says this word, lozenge. Train down from Edinburgh took all day and I maybe caught something from the Belfast football bros in the seats behind. Maybe their spirit.

Menthol helps but I am so tired at dinner that I use the wrong side of the mini Wusthof on my lamb chop. So sharp that it works anyway, but he notices, tight-lip laughing, reaching over to flip it. Everybody noticing. Cutting such an unexpected figure for my non-boyfriend’s family. He’d opened the door to their building off Hyde Park and I’d asked what floor, but the answer was: all the floors.

After dinner, upright in the kitchen, he pours vodka, layers lemon wedges with big-crystal sugar and espresso dust. This is how you chase in Petersburg, he explains. His grandmother eats fruited brie in the sitting room. Waste not, I say, and we drink down the shots, curl lips around the sweet citric punch, smiling through it. He thumbs the corner of my mouth to sop juice, lets me lick. His grandmother, from the sitting room, asks isn’t anybody going to come and have tea. We’re drinking coffee in here, he calls, and pours again.

Eyes locked like this is the best lemon he’s ever dressed: bare tart shudder flipped to oilslick of spirit fumes, coffee bump sugar quake. And me in the mews, which I learn is just another way to say an alley, asking, do you own the mews? Do you own your muse? Look on his face, like: all the floors.

a photo of the author, Liana Imam LIANA IMAM’s stories and essays have appeared in PANK, Armchair/Shotgun, Electric Literature, Fiction Writers Review, and more. She received an honorable mention for the Glimmer Train Very Short Fiction Award in 2016, and was shortlisted for Fish Publishing’s 2016/17 Short Story Contest. She is an MFA candidate at the University of Montana and lives in Missoula. More from this issue >