It was thirty minutes past five when Rachel stormed into the bar and shook the rain from her red hood. After the dreary weather, the River and Woods was a dry, dark sanctuary. Televisions lined the bar, motions of color, heads gaping open and closed about news or sports or “reality.” As her vision sharpened, she saw her colleagues clustered at high tops near the pool tables. Appetizers assembled among them.
She was slipping out of her jacket when Ben approached, a beer extended in his hand. Three men in suits passed her as she accepted the drink, raising it up to cheers Ben. The men were young, dressed in midnight. The light smell of paper fresh from the printer followed them to the bar. Pop music screamed from the stereos.
“Glad you made it. Wouldn’t be the same without you.”
She nodded and settled into a chair. Ben had removed his tie, opened his top button, and rolled up his sleeves. He was the wolf of the office. A real killer. Everyone praised him for closing deals and new clients.
She sipped the top of the beer. It was cold and tart.
She hadn’t been planning on stopping in, had to get home to take care of her grandmother. But Dave from HR had popped over as she was wrapping up. It was important for everyone to show up, he had said. Frank and Larry were concerned about morale, about loyalty, about team cohesion. About bullshit, she thought to herself. They thought happy hour would fix everything.
Fine. Just a few minutes. An appearance, that’s all. It’d been a long day. Maybe get a soda and lime, look like she was part of the crowd. That was before she’d arrived, before Ben had cornered her, drink in hand. Fine, she thought again. Just go with it. Even if you don’t like beer.
“Thanks for coming.” Dave stopped next to her. Bags hung under his eyes. His hair was a mess.
“You didn’t need to worry. Everyone knew they needed to come.” Her reassurances made Dave smile but not relax. “It’ll be fine.”
Dave sighed and nodded his head. He looked like he needed another drink, but then a chant arose from the bar. Interns wanting shots. Dave bee-lined to the bar, not apologizing or noticing her silent scream for him to stay.
“Have you tried their jalapeño poppers?” Ben had one in his hand. He was offering it to her. Not for her to pick up. But for him to feed it to her. For him to place it in her mouth like she was a child or his long-time girlfriend. Like she wanted a popper with his germs all over it.
He pushed his hand toward her. Crumbs fell from the popper. A thin coat of grease lined its edges. A pit grew in her stomach.
“I’m not hungry.” Her mind jumped into gear. What should she say next? She wanted to tell him to stop, that he was being a creep. That would have been direct. Could it be too direct? Could it make her problem worse?
“Really, they’re great!” He persisted. The popper floated outside her mouth. Cheese and pepper filling her nose. A decision grew in her mind.
Her hand moved in front of her mouth and pushed the popper away. “Really. No thanks.” She stood up and picked up her beer. Excusing herself for the bathroom was all she could come up with.
She walked away, her cheeks burning, the pulse pounding in her temples. Then she felt it. His hand sitting on the small of her back.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.” Ben’s mouth hovered above her ear. She turned to face him. Her heart thundered. The music echoed in a distant canyon.
“Don’t take it that way.” His hand remained on her back, arm draping her waist, pulling her closer. Her mind raced again, her eyes darting around the room looking for an out. Dave, where are you? Why aren’t you stopping this? Why won’t he just leave me alone?
“Ben? Round of pool?” The voice was young and clear. New. She didn’t recognize it.
“No thanks, Hunter.” Hunter. An intern. She didn’t know him. He wasn’t on her team.
“How ‘bout you, Rach?”
She didn’t go by Rach. She hated nicknames, in fact, but today she was happy to hear it. “Sure.” She pulled away from Ben’s grasp, to fresh air, to safety. Hunter leaned against the table, all smiles, a knowing look in his eyes, a cue stick in hand. An assist was all she needed. A wingman. Some support. Someone to have her back.
“I don’t know how to play pool,” she admitted when she was beside him. “But thank you.”
“That’s ok. I like winning anyway.” He didn’t grin. He looked serious.
She knew she should tell Dave. She had a witness now. But she didn’t want to.
She could already see what would happen. The company meeting Dave would hold on sexual harassment, Ben denying he had done anything wrong, that they were just talking, Rachel distressed by the undertone, that it was mutual, that she had been wanting his advances, the partners wary of coming down too hard on Ben—he was their best salesman, a real leader on the team—but, knowing the liability issues, agreeing to send Ben to sensitivity training. Ben persisting, asking why she was so uptight, why she wouldn’t wear her hair down, why she didn’t return his hugs. She would retreat, stop attending social events, because it was easier to remove herself from the situation. The partners would talk to her, explain how she needed to improve. Be part of the team, they’d say. This is a social business. She’d end up leaving for another job, another place that might be safer for her to go every day, to work, to be herself.
Happy hour, they insisted. It would fix everything.