Sunday, April 3, 2011

you've got to stay positive.

Victoria was so tired of quiet nights. What started as nice, quiet evenings with a glass of wine and Philip Larkin on the front porch ended up being a prison sentence. She couldn't even create a premise under which to leave the house tonight. Go stump for a cup of overpriced coffee? She had a brand new bag and a new bean grinder. Wander through the labyrinthine shelves of the used bookstore down the street? Her to-read pile was tenfold the height of her have-read pile, so that ratio was embarrassing enough. Head to some purposefully trashy dive bar and "people watch" when she's really just trying to get someone, anyone, to look at her with eyes that say "Yes, Victoria, you seem like someone with interesting thoughts and a warm soul and, although I don't know you, I would love to buy you a gin and tonic and talk to you for five minutes to confirm my recently formed hypothesis about your innate goodness and decency"?

Okay, that last one didn't sound quite as bad when her sister Kate called up and phrased it like this: "Wanna go to a bar with me and some work friends?"

"Not really," Victoria said. "Is it that bar that you guys always go to? The skeeviest guys hang out there and I'm not in the mood to be ogled tonight."

"Don't worry," Kate said, "I got this really old ring from the store on consignment. I'll bring it and you can wear it on your ring finger and people will leave you alone."

"Or extra-creepy guys will figure I'm trolling for something on the side."

"Just come out with me and wear the ring and we can make fun of anyone gross enough to not know better than to try and get between sisters on Girl's Night."

So Victoria put on those jeans and that shirt and those boots and slipped herself into that jacket and made her way down the street to Puzzles or Bubbles or whatever the hell this bar was called.

She thought she'd be getting there early enough to scope out the least-active area of the place and sequester herself in a Naugahyde corner booth fortress, impervious to the prying eyes of the prowling men and scowling women. But the 9 PM call-time that Kate had presented (and that Victoria hoped to subvert by showing up at 8 PM) was apparently an overestimation, and the half-concealed booth that was to be a temporary sanctuary was already occupied by Kate.

While Victoria had grown up to become pretty, Kate always had been. She was one of the beautiful ducklings that made the teenage, pre-swan Victoria into the Awkward Younger Sister that every pretty girl seemed to have. Kate was born a beautiful baby, grew into a beautiful child, became a beautiful teenager, and remained a beautiful adult. And growing up under those standards, the levels of Gorgeousness that Kate had embodied effortlessly, repressed by their obviousness, had always made Victoria feel like a biological, aesthetic disappointment, an evolutionary letdown in the cherubic face of an older sister who never had to try.

So now, all these years later, when there wasn't Victoria and Her Prettier Older Sister, that they were both just The Pretty Girls in the Corner Booth, Victoria felt flattered, not suppressed, by Kate's campfire eyes and summer hello.

"You're here early," Victoria said.

"So are you," Kate said. "I figured you'd show up early, so I adjusted the time accordingly. And I even got you a club soda and lime." She reached into her blouse's breast pocket and pulled out a small, ornate ring whose diamond caught even the dim light of the bar's overheads and pushed it back out as a supernova. "It's so shiny that no one will be able to ignore it."

"Thank you," she said, sliding her legs into the booth and her finger into the ring. "It's a little garish, don't you think?"

"Yeah, but that's a good thing for your purposes. Easier to spot."

"Okay."

"So," Kate said, "how are you?"

"Good."

"That's good." Kate sipped from her own glass, and Victoria tried to count the drops of condensation on its outside. "How's the job hunt?"

"Meh," Victoria said, "it's going. Slowly but steadily."

"That's what wins races." Kate smiled. "I could probably get you a job at the antique store. Jan is about to quit–don't mention it when she gets here, though–and so there'd be at least a few shifts a week. Help keep you afloat."

"Thanks, but if I take part-time work, I don't get unemployment anymore. It'd probably be a net loss. And I wouldn't have as much time to sit around and not do anything." Victoria raised her glass to her lips and her tongue snatched a piece of ice from it, batting it back and forth between her teeth like a pendulum.

"Well," Kate said, "if you want, it's an open invitation."

"I'll keep it in mind. Thank you."

"We got this huge shipment in the other day. Some old guy who had this massive record collection had a heart attack when he went sky-diving or something and we got the whole thing. You should come check it out." Kate paused. "Uh oh."

"What?"

Kate slightly raised a deep red fingernail over Victoria's shoulder and affixed her eyes to the table. "There's some guy coming over to hit on us. Five seconds to impact." She breathed out deeply. "Brace yourself."

Victoria whipped her head around to see a tall, clean-shaven man in a gray sweater approaching their table. They made brief eye contact before she did her best to look nonchalant. She could tell she was failing even as he continued the final few paces to the booth.

"Excuse me," he said, "can one of you do me a favor?"

Kate chuckled dismissively, raising a skeptical eyebrow to her younger sister. "Oh?"

"See that tall guy over there? Standing in the corner?" the man said, throwing a slight nod of his head to the opposite corner of the bar.

"What about him?" Kate said, her abrasiveness making Victoria uncomfortable and unable to lift her gaze from the table.

"That's my friend. His name is Brandon and today's his birthday and–"

"And," Kate interrupted, "what, you want to get one of our phone numbers for him? You want to give him the gift of a one-night-stand?"

"Actually," the man said, shifting his focus from Kate to Victoria, "I was hoping that one of you would slap me."

"What?" Victoria said, surprised at how loud her first words in the conversation came out.

"See, it's his birthday, and he's just turned 21, but his girlfriend is a few months younger than him and couldn't come–it is a bar, after all–so he's kind of bummed, and I think he'd get a real kick out of thinking that I'm hitting on some beautiful girl, only to get slapped in the face."

Kate looked to her sister. "Can't say I'd blame him. You want this one?"

Victoria's tongue, cold from the ice, stumbled over the handful of words she'd managed to summon. "I don't know. I'd feel bad. And I'd start laughing."

"Oh, come on," the man said, holding out a hand to her. "I'm Patrick, by the way. And you should shake my hand, so it looks like I'm making actual progress with you."

Victoria shook it and it was so warm that she worried she'd burst into flame. "I don't want to hurt you." She noticed Kate smiling in the corner of her eye, but didn't grant her the attention of a full-blown look.

"Don't worry," Patrick said, "I'm tough. And if you do it right, it should hurt me. But come on, it's a birthday gift. Help me do this for a good guy whose night should be a lot better than it is right now." He smiled and Victoria found herself doing so, too. "Count of three?" he asked.

"Okay."

"One." Victoria stretched out her fingers and let her eyes open just a little bit wider.
"Two." She flexed her hand and wondered where they might go on their first date after such a funny first-meeting story.
"Three." She let loose the dogs of hell and sent an open palm flying across his cheek.

But while the ring Kate had lent her had been light enough that Victoria had already forgot she was wearing it, the jagged stone fixed in it was sharp enough to leave a small trail of perforated cheek in its wake. Victoria's jaw dropped and heart sunk as she saw the trickles of blood gather along the line before gravity took over and they turned to drips.

"Oh no," Victoria said, "are you okay?"

"Yeah," Patrick said, wincing through clenched teeth, "I'm fine. Napkin, please?" Kate, aghast, grabbed hers and handed it to him. "Thanks." He closed his eyes and, even above the ambient din of bar noise, Victoria could hear this teeth grinding together.

"I'm so, so sorry," she said, pointing to the ring, "I'm not used to wearing this. It's not even mine." She took it off and hurriedly handed it to Kate, who slipped it back into her pocket.

"It's fine. Guess I should've looked for a ring first, anyway," Patrick said. "Thanks for trying." He stepped quickly back to his friends in the corner.

"Hey," Kate said to her horrified sister, "don't worry about it. You didn't mean to do anything, he asked for it, and he'll be fine."

"I'm gonna go," Victoria said, lifting her legs out of the booth and rising to locked knees. "I'm sorry. Tell Jan I said hi. Tell everyone I said hi."

"Oh, come on. You don't need to leave." But Victoria could barely hear her sister's words and instead noticed only the pointing fingers and derisive chortling of alpha males on the other side of the bar.

"Have a good night," Victoria said, near-sprinting to the door, her sister's protests slowly transforming from comforting declarations to nothing more than a distance-muffled piece of the crowd noise the closer she got to the exit.

Finally getting to the front door, she saw Patrick and his friends about ten feet away. "Happy birthday," she said. "I'm so sorry." She walked out before any of them could respond.

She drove home a steady fifteen MPH above the speed limit and threw herself into pajamas the second she arrived. She tried to go right to sleep, but an arrhythmically flickering streetlight shone through the slats of her bedroom's window blinds, rapping her closed eyelids back open whenever she was close to falling away. The frustrated tears that began to well in her eyes left two hot streaks, but they quickly turned chilly as they trickled down the sides of her face.

His hand had been so warm and soft and these sheets were so cold and stiff.

1 comment:

Meg said...

that guy was an idiot, but whatever. :)