The waiter at the waterfront restaurant set a pint glass on my table. ''It's on the bartender.''
On the house? This was a warm night in south Florida. Maybe a sweat drop had lodged in my ear, causing me to mis-hear. The first George Bush was in office the last time a man bought me a drink. It wasn't always such. Back in the day, I was a looker. Not ''Get-this-girl-a-Vogue-cover!'' gorgeous, but pretty enough that construction workers hung off buildings to holler as I walked by.
But I'm over fifty now. It's been ages since anyone shouted at me on the street, ''Ooooh, baby, how'd you like to hold MY hammer?''
I interrogated the waiter like he'd delivered a Swine flu cocktail. He seemed a bit evasive. Even so, dim memories surfaced of long-ago club nights with girlfriends, when free drinks stacked up like planes over Atlanta. Half the time, I'd take a sip, nod my thanks, and leave the rest sitting on the bar. I never thought about a day the attention would stop coming. But it did. And usually I don't miss it. Until that night the waiter brought a beer. On the house.
I was flattered. I was flustered. I felt twenty-nine again. ''What's the bartender's name?'' I think I even batted my lashes. ''I want to make sure I thank him.''
Long pause. ''Actually, the beer was a mistake,'' the waiter finally admitted.
Turned out, a new bartender inadvertently poured a beer I never ordered. Instead of tossing it, the waiter served it. On the house. In a way.
So, I'm still old after all. Still invisible. Just the beneficiary of an inexperienced bartender's learning curve.
I drank every drop.
And, as I did, I wondered: Why don't those gratis drinks get spread around? Take a cocktail or two from the line of liquor awaiting some nubile twenty-something, and pass it to someone old enough to be her mom. Those young girls won't miss it. One more free drink means nothing to a gorgeous girl in her twenties. Trust me.
But to the formerly pretty, now middle-aged and dowdy? Well, let's just say that one beer on the house -- briefly -- made my day.