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Punchline This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

Her nose is a little crooked, Ben found himself thinking as the redhead seated next to him let out a laugh at the joke he'd just told. Something about a rabbi and a horse walking into a bar. He couldn't remember why it was so funny, but he smiled along with her and downed the remnants of his scotch and soda, tipping the glass until the ice knocked against his teeth. After catching the bartender's eye and signaling for another, he turned back to the woman (Sarah? No, Sophie – it was Sophie, wasn't it?) and studied her. Her eyes were a mild but pretty shade of blue, and her vibrant hair curled softly where it brushed her shoulders. She was otherwise good-looking, but his eyes kept drifting back to that nose.

It was more than a little crooked. It had a curve in it that reminded him of the state line of Iowa on a map. Ben realized he was staring and glanced down at his glass; after a second, he lifted it to his lips and winced as the last drops burned the back of his throat.

Iowa. F***.

“You know –” he said abruptly, cutting her off in the middle of telling a story. Surprised, she closed her mouth and smiled politely, her eyebrows raised and her head tipped a little to the side. “My ex-girlfriend is from Iowa.” He nodded slowly, as though emphasizing this piece of information.

“Really?” She, too, nodded, although she seemed not to know what to make of this sudden turn in conversation.

“Yup. She lived on a farm with animals and everything … cows, and chickens …” Ben moved his fingers in a scurrying motion. “And she had a dog, too. Little rat b**ch of a thing.” He shook his head and waved at the bartender again. “And it never shut up, either – yapping all day and night. It was enough to drive you up the wall. Her landlord kept threatening to kick her out if she didn't get rid of it, but she was a sweet talker, you know, real pretty, and she could talk her way out of anything ….”

“Huh,” said the redhead, taking a dainty sip of her vodka cranberry. If Ben had been sober he might have noticed the way she began glancing around, as though losing interest in the conversation. He also may have realized that talking about his beautiful former girlfriend would make any girl uncomfortable. But since as he was already good and drunk, he remained painfully oblivious and kept rambling.

A little loudly, too.

“Yeah, her name was Karen. One of those brainy types, went to Princeton and all that – ahh, cheers!” He grinned and gave the bartender an appreciative nod as he poured Ben another drink. The bartender eyed him warily.

“Hey, bud, this is your fourth, so just … slow down a bit, all right?” he said, glancing at the redhead. She was tapping on her phone, but it was clear by her eyebrows that she was listening.

Ben just grinned and shrugged, taking a none-too-delicate sip. The bartender sighed and turned away, shaking his head. The woman looked up decisively and opened her mouth to speak, but Ben was off again before she had the chance.

“Anyway, she majored in” – he took another gulp – “psychology, and it figures, you know, she was always trying to, like …” – he searched for the word, running his tongue over his teeth – “analyze me and sh*t … and I told her, ‘You're not my f**king therapist' and everything, but she just kept saying all this bulls**t about how I should go to, uh, whassihcalled, Alc –” Suddenly Ben coughed, sputtering on the word. “Alco –”

The redhead's attention was on him now, the wrinkles in her forehead showing her apprehension. “Alcoholics Anonymous?” she finished pointedly.

Clearing his throat, Ben looked at her and nodded vigorously. “Right, right, that! And I said to her, I said, ‘You gotta be crazy or something, cuz I don't have a … I'm no – I'm no drunk, and –”

In one swift motion, the redhead stood and swung her jacket and purse over her shoulder. “I'm very sorry, but I have to be somewhere,” she told him, without sounding sorry in the least. “It was nice to meet you, uh … Ben.” She held out her hand for him to shake, but let it fall, realizing he wasn't even looking at her. She turned and walked out the door.

Ben gave no indication that he had noticed her leaving. Downing the last of his drink, he let out a small burp and repeated, to no one in particular, “I'm no drunk.”

•••

Hurrying down the sidewalk, Sasha fumbled for her phone, which was blaring the ancient one-hit-wonder she had set, jokingly, as the ringtone. Irony, she now realized, could eventually cross the line between funny and irritating.

“Sasha? Where the hell are you? You're on in 15!”

The stage manager, Greg.

“I know, I know, I … don't worry, I'll be there in time,” she promised. She quickened her pace, wishing she hadn't worn heels.

The comedy club was barely a ten-minute walk from the bar, but this time it seemed longer. Occasionally, she'd go to the bar an hour before she went on, claiming a drink helped calm her nerves. In truth, what she wanted at the bar was not alcohol but inspiration.

On days when she was out of ideas for material, she always found something interesting there. In tonight's case, the drunk telling jokes that would have made her roll her eyes, had she not been polite enough to laugh.

When Sasha reached the club, she blinked in the sudden light, and caught sight of Greg by the stage's edge staring at her. He held up a hand, five fingers splayed, and she nodded.

In the bathroom, she examined herself in the mirror. In general, she was content with how she looked. Her hair, although bright, was a nice color, and it curled gently around her face. She liked the color of her eyes, the shape of her lips, the smoothness of her pale skin – but, dear God, her nose. There was no delicate way to describe it; it was simply crooked as all hell. But there was no time to agonize over it now. She took one last glance at herself, and headed out.

As she approached the wings, Sasha could hear scattered laughter amid the applause for the preceding act. She and Greg waited while Rob introduced her. When Greg gave her the thumbs-up, she took a deep breath and stepped onstage.

For a moment she could see nothing, only clapping and a whistle or two. But she smiled blindly, until her eyes adjusted and her audience came into view. Their open faces smiled back at her, waiting.

Without further ado, Sasha opened her mouth, the taste of irony already sweet on her tongue.

“So a rabbi and a horse walk into a bar ….”

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.




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