Written by: Ashley Koh (21-A1)
Designed by: Liew Yi Xuan (21-E1)
Five drunk guys walk into a bar, and the bartender gains catharsis through her reconnection with one of them.
Glasses clink. Chatter rises and falls in volume. Drunken laughter fills the air. Chairs and stools squeak as people, inebriated, shift uncomfortably in their seats.
Dawn sees all of this as she calmly wipes a drinking glass. The towel in her hand is rough and caked in dirt, passed down by generations of bartenders. But though her eyes scan the bar, her mind isn’t here.
The harsh words her boyfriend yelled at her this morning still echo in her mind, and she winces as she recalls the equally piercing words she screamed back. He left their home in a huff, slamming the door and leaving Dawn to sob by herself.
Since then, it’s been radio silence from him.
She checks her phone again. No messages. Sighing, she slips it back in her pocket and continues to absent-mindedly wipe a glass.
“Dawn!” Her coworker, Tyler, calls. “Help me bring these bottles out.”
She places the glass next to the sink, and hops back into the inventory room.
“You got it?” Tyler asks as he carefully loads a few liquor bottles into Dawn’s arms. Focused on not dropping the bottles, she can only nod.
As she leaves the inventory room, she hears the bell attached to the door ring.
“Welcome to the Bittersweet Pub! I’ll be with you in a second.” Drunken shouts greet her words, and she sighs once more. There’s maybe about five people here. Carefully, she places the bottles down, then turns around to face the counter.
“What can I get you-” She stops.
No. It can’t be. She thought she would never see that face again.
“My buddy Kenny’s getting promoted! It’s his last night as a mortal man! We want everything on the menu!”
She thought she would never hear that name again.
“Stoooppp,” one of the men slurs drunkenly, swiping at his buddy’s shirt aimlessly.
And though his words are muddled by alcohol, she never thought she would hear that voice again.
“R-right. What, uh, what would you like to start with?” She furiously tamps down the feeling of panic, and her customer service smile smoothly slides onto her face. “May I recommend the Portuguese Water to start? It’s gin-“
“Anything’s fine, lady. Just get us drinks and keep ‘em going!” She nods wordlessly, then turns behind the counter.
Internally, she’s screaming. The last time she saw him, she was seventeen.
And he was her first boyfriend.
Kenny Rodriguez seemingly had it all. Student Council President, head of his CCA, popular among a vast majority of the school. And he was Spanish, which made him even more alluring to most of the school.
Dawn wasn’t a nerd, nor was she *unpopular*. But Kenny’s popularity reached superstardom, while she preferred mingling in small groups.
They were never supposed to meet, let alone hit it off. But when they attended the same woodworking workshop as part of the Sabbatical Module, something between them clicked.
They were friends at first, but quickly their relationship evolved into something more. In each other, they found the best friend they never knew they needed.
At the start, everything was perfect. Both were head over heels for each other, and even thinking back to then 10 years later, the level of attraction her 17-year-old self had towards Kenny still makes Dawn’s heart pound.
But slowly, she realised that dating a guy with so many commitments in school spells trouble, inevitably.
They had dinner dates on Thursdays, and went out together on Saturdays. But gradually, she had to wait more and more for him.
Minutes turned to hours, then days. He always came back, apologising profusely and like a fool, she always forgave him.
Then one day, four months later, he sat her down and broke up with her.
“You deserve someone better, who can give you the things I can’t give.” That was the line Dawn remembered the most. When she soaked her pillow in tears and screamed into her bolster for nights afterwards, she latched onto that line like a toxic lifeline. It sustained her rage and her resentment, and gradually she grew to hate him.
But a part of her also hurt, because she dug out such a big hole in her heart for him and now there was nothing left to fill it.
For months and years after that, she dated a whole string of guys that were so obviously wrong for her, just to feel something close to what she felt before.
It always failed. And ten years later, that failure has come back to haunt her as she sees him sitting, drunk, in front of the bar counter she works at.
All night, Dawn serves them drinks. She’s glad that even inebriated, they are civilised enough to keep their hands to themselves. Unfortunately, she isn’t saved from drunken leering and them egging each other on in front of her.
‘It’s just another day of work.’ Dawn reminds herself, ad infinitum. Not just to have the patience to deal with the men, but to have self-control as her eyes hover over Kenny’s face again and again.
When the clock strikes two, it seems a switch has been pulled. Phones vibrate, ding, and even ring. As the men open texts and pick up calls, the only one still sitting down at the counter, nursing his drink, is Kenny.
One by one, they file out of the bar, and Kenny waves goodbye to each of them drunkenly.
The last to leave, presumably his best friend, murmurs, “I’m not that drunk, so I can still drive you home.” Kenny waves him off, and the other man laughs.
“Suit yourself, idiot.” Then he looks at Dawn, then back at Kenny, and a look of understanding slowly appears on his face. He winks, then laughs and leaves the bar. Dawn’s jaw clenches, and she focuses on pouring away the rest of the drink in the glass. As the door slams, the realisation sets in her.
It’s just him and her now.
“So, promotion, huh?” Kenny looks up blearily at her, then nods his head slowly in response to her comment. “What position?”
He takes a while to think, then murmurs something too soft for her to hear.
“I said, Assistant Manager.” He says more loudly, sounding more annoyed than drunk now.
“Sorry,” Dawn says, palms up in surrender. “What company?”
“Redwood. It’s a…law firm.” Dawn smiles. Somehow, even though he was so busy, she always expected him to go down the traditional Asian route. He loosens his tie, then places it down on the counter.
Then he coughs, as it was choking him. Under his breath, Dawn hears him swear.
“Y’know, I never wanted this promotion. I was happy. Happy to stay where I was and just toil away. 9 to 5 suits me. All I need to do is keep my head down, do my job, and mind my own business.” He rests the cold glass against his forehead, and when he pulls it away, rivulets of water chase each other down his forehead to his cheeks.
“But now, I need to care about what everyone wants. It’s exhausting.” Kenny sighs, and lays his head on the table.
Quietly, he murmurs, “I had enough of that in JC.” Dawn stiffens slightly.
“Uh, what did you do in JC? That made you so tired of leading people?” At this point, Dawn is pretty impressed with herself for only calmly wiping glasses and not throwing them down and sprinting out of the bar.
“Everything. Council, CCA president…” He begins to slur drunkenly, then shakes his head. “I did all kinds of stuff, ‘cause I thought they would…look good on my resumé.” He scoffs. “Turns out none of that stuff matters in Uni. Or when you apply for a job.”
“But you managed to get into a law firm! That’s pretty impressive.” What is she doing? Consoling him about his own insecurities? Where is the hatred she felt?
“Yah, after struggling like hell. Honestly, I only got in because I’m best friends with the Manager’s son. Otherwise, I wouldn’t even have had a chance to go for an interview.”
He sighs deeply, then lifts his glass for another drink. Dawn moves to the liquor bottles, but something in her says no.
“You can have tea instead. I’m sure you have work tomorrow,” She pushes his glass away. His reproachful look only earns him a firm stare, and he backs down.
From beneath the counter, she fetches a dusty old kettle, and begins to boil water. As she pours the water into a tiny jade tea cup, Kenny starts to speak again.
“There was a girl. Who I dated for a bit at the start of JC.” Here it is. Dawn swallows nervously, and carefully places the teacup in front of him.
“What was her name? Diana? Danielle? Daphne? Wh-“
“Drink it while it’s still hot,” Dawn quickly interjects. Her eyes glance downwards. To her horror, she realises her name tag has been pinned to her uniform all this time. Hastily, she unpins it and shoves it in her pocket.
“Thanks.” Kenny mumbles, oblivious to her hurried movement. In one swift movement, almost like taking a shot, he gulps down the tea. Afterwards, he shudders and shakes his head vigorously, almost like a dog getting rid of excess water.
Eager to escape the situation she’s found herself in, she stands up and steps in front of the counter. “Come on, you should go now, it’s late. I’ll get a cab for you.”
He staggers up obediently, and nearly collapses on Dawn. Luckily for her, she has quick reflexes. Almost immediately, she catches him by the shoulders, and turns him around towards the door.
“This way.” She steers him out of the bar.
Outside, as Dawn calls for a Grab, he plops down on the pavement next to her.
“It should be here in about ten minutes. Can you wait?”
He smiles, and nods his head. She returns the smile, and moves to head back into the bar.
“Thank you, Dawn.” She stops in her tracks.
“It-it’s nothing. All of those in the service line should put their customers first.” He probably just remembered her name from the name tag.
“And I’m sorry to you for what I did all those years ago.” Oh. It wasn’t just the name tag. Hesitatingly, she sits back down on the pavement next to Kenny.
“I was a mess.” Even though her first instinct is to reject that statement, Dawn knows deep down it’s true.
“I didn’t handle things well, and I took on way too much, just to prove I was worth something. But you were the only one who ACTUALLY made me feel I had value, and that there was someone who wanted me around.” In response, Dawn’s throat tightens. “I was an idiot. I didn’t value you enough. Or maybe I just couldn’t back then. I don’t know if this is enough, but I truly am sorry for what I did to you.”
He wipes his face, and with a start, Dawn realises he’s crying. Kenny Rodriguez, former shining star and untouchable school icon, is breaking down in front of her.
“You DID deserve better, but I shouldn’t have used that as an excuse. I was just being a coward.” Quietly, he sniffles.
“Afterwards, I missed you so badly. I did everything I could to put you out of my mind, but I just couldn’t. I kept asking about you, until all of my friends knew I wasn’t okay, that I was heartbroken. I kept wanting to go back to you. But it was too late. I saw you, slowly moving on, becoming a star in your own right.” Quietly, Dawn laughs. That’s how he saw her? Wow.
They sit in silence for a bit, then abruptly, he turns to her, and catches her hands in his. The look he gives her is both blood-shot and absolutely desperate.
“Please, I messed up all those years ago. If you can, please, let me try again. With you.”
Dawn’s breath hitches. Isn’t this the second chance she wanted all those years ago? To feel how she felt about Kenny again?
She wants to say it so badly. Her seventeen-year-old self is screaming at her to say it, to just say yes. What are you waiting for you absolute idiot?
And yet, she can’t. Surprisingly, a larger part of her doesn’t want to. As mad as she is at him, her current boyfriend’s face floats into her mind.
“I’m sorry. But that was 10 years ago. And I think what happened in the past should stay in the past.”
He looks crestfallen.
Guilt is beginning to swallow her up. Did she make the right choice? Should she have said yes after all? But he stands up, wobbling a little, and Dawn shoots up next to him.
“Okay,” he says, looking at her with still blood-shot but now earnest eyes, “okay. I get it. But I’m still sorry for treating you that way.” She smiles.
“I appreciate it.” She pauses, then continues. “And you should know that you have value. You’ve always had value, because you work hard for what you want.”
Blearily, he grins at her in thanks.
Bright lights shine onto them from a distance, and tires crunch on gravel as a yellow taxi pulls up into sight.
Kenny staggers into the taxi with Dawn’s help, and settles heavily onto the back seat.
“Get home safe,” she tells him as she closes the door. Kenny nods, then takes Dawn’s hand and kisses it through the open window.
“Goodbye, Dawn.” He says, grinning.
“Farewell, Kenny.” Dawn murmurs as the taxi drives off. Slowly, she caresses the spot on her hand where Kenny kissed, then drops her hand completely.
Her phone pings.
BABE I’m sorry for what I said this morning. And for disappearing. Let me make it up to you.
BABE Where are you? I’ll come pick you up.
DAWN I’m still at the bar.
DAWN And it’s okay. I shouldn’t have said what I said either.
DAWN I love you. See you soon.
She tucks her phone into her pocket, and looks up at the sky. It looks bright. The stars are out, and Venus is particularly luminescent today.