The neighborhood curled away like a slow purple hook.
A blue sedan pulled curbside. Lena Smallview straightened the wheel, winced at the squeal of rubber on concrete. The engine rumbled in its cage; once the warmth left her cheeks, Lena killed the lights, twisted the keys. A silence swallowed the air like someone spun the dial down all the way on the universe.
Lena turned and asked: “You ready for me?”
Maya Smallview sat shotgun clutching a handful of skirt, the brick-colored hem licking the wide aprons of her shins. She looked down and smoothed the fabric with shining palms. Her blonde hair was pulled into a bun; her green eyes were closed.
“Go on,” Maya said.
Lena handed off the keys before slipping out and starting down the sidewalk. Two turns and she reached a four-lane commercial drag in the ribcage of Eagle Rock, CA. The light poisoned the dusk here, the orange sidewalk unraveling like a 35mm roll of honey-soaked film. The door to the first establishment stood open: Lena entered.
Corcovado silted down from overhead speakers, caulked the holes in the jangled sheet of conversation. A set of eyes rose from a high-top table as she floated across the black and white checkered tiles. Eyes that boiled as she approached; she darted hers down to watch the colorless reflections of light hopscotch by. She edged forward and settled on a stool toward the far end of the bar. Spinning once around she watched a carousel of 20-somethings converse along a shelf lining the red walls. Chandeliers dropped from the ceiling like dead spiders, their bulbs glowing in six-point constellations like that's all there was way up there. The resulting light was dim; more seedy than intimate, the place any two people came for any one reason.
Lena palmed the counter and twisted until she and the bartender were square. He wore a dark long sleeve polo unbuttoned all the way. He was hairless above the neck, his pale features rising and bleeding down the rubber triangle of chest like a moon over black ocean. There were no menus on the counter; her order had never been written about anyway.
“A well vodka with ice and a big lemon wedge.”
“Well vodka,” he repeated, dribbling ice into a rocks glass soon filled to capacity with vodka.
“With lemon.” He harvested a big bright one from underneath the bar. After some dissection he pressed a wedge on the lip of the rocks glass; juice spurted and sprayed the hardwood in dark watermelon seed drops. He stabbed the ice with a straw and slipped a cocktail napkin beneath it all.
“Thank you.” She dragged the drink closer by the napkin.
“Think nothing of it,” he mumbled, thundering toward some hipster leaning like he didn’t tip past 10%.
She set her phone on the counter and chipped the ice with her straw. The only other drinker seated here was a half-dozen stools over with his face in a book. Lena caught her tobacco eyes reflected in the barback mirror through the liquor bottle skyline. She straightened her spine and angled her neck in all the directions, watching the veins and tendons sharpen around a black choker. She fanned out her hair, felt the strands claw her shoulders through her white tee like branches blown against a windowpane. Her lips were painted bright as a red sun, her cheeks and nose peppered with freckles proliferated by time.
She squeezed lemon into the vodka, watched seeds drift among the ice as the juice shone like sunlight through a crystal fog. She stirred it all around, fingered the straw aside and took a sip from the rim. The bite was bitter; the sting slowly blinked away. She drummed hands on her jeans and clicked the black heels of her Sk8-His to the liquid rhythms drizzling down.
“Maya?” she heard a man ask over her shoulder.
Maya said his name in-kind. They shook hands in the mirror and took seats across a table. Lena watched the lemon seeds slip to the glass floor, listened to pieces of the exchange:
“I’ve been here five… graduated UCI… accounting.”
“I like it too… but I can’t open my window without spending $40.”
“Gonna be too poor to die…”
. . .
The man approached the bar. Lena played it cool as she could; to her credit he didn’t notice she existed. She sipped the vodka and tore teeth in the napkin until he left with two fists full of draft beer.
. . . .
“-not even that expensive actually.”
The man down the counter stood up. Lena watched him raise the paperback high above his head in some suggestive stretch. He secured his drink then paced over with looping certainty, treating himself to the barstool two away from her.
“Hi.” He set his book on the counter, slid his drink a natural distance away. He smelled of wet grass and blue Old Spice.
“Hi,” she replied, forcing her lips into the smallest smile she had. The bar droned like a radio caught between stations.
“How do you know that couple over there?” he asked. Lena flinched. “They’re not listening,” he assured her. She stole a glance through the mirror for herself.
“They’re not a couple,” Lena said, shifting her eyes to him, wrapping her hand around the cold vodka.
“So you do know them.”
“I didn’t say that. That’s my sister; she’s on a Tinder date.”
“You’re the chaperone?”
“Wow,” the man said.
“Wow? What’s wow? You never been on a Tinder date before?”
“No, I need all my hands to count the number a-those I’ve been on.” He smiled at his glass like it’d done something worthwhile. “That’s just exactly what you’re doing, isn’t it?”
She danced her drink on the wet napkin. “I believe in radical honesty with strangers.” He started to look over his shoulder when she froze him with a: “Hey- don’t make me regret that policy.”
“All right.” He wheeled a few degrees deeper into their conversation. “Find it hard to be honest with the people you do know?”
“I didn't say I invite therapy from strangers.”
He dropped his eyes and curled his lips in apology. “Course you don’t.”
Lena studied him with a nod of her pupils. He looked young, 25 maybe. His brown hair was shaved fresh and close with either the three or the four guard. The creases around his eyes suggested he smiled a lot. Even at rest he basically smiled now, the lines grazing the big beauty mark stuck in orbit around his right eye. He wore a black tee tucked into black denim, his belt buckle gleaming like brass scaffolding.
“How’s your reading?” she asked, glancing at The Man Without Qualities.
“Horrible. Been re-reading the same five pages for 30 minutes.” He turned the copy over in his hand; the bar seemed to grow louder. “And I’ll read em for good at home later. Or if I get too drunk, I’ll do it in the A-M.”
“Bar’s no library,” she said.
“This one may be the worst place I ever read.”
“So assuming this isn’t your first time doing this here-”
“Isn’t,” he confirmed.
Her eyebrows flickered. “Then why do it?”
He drained the last of his beer then asked: “Radical honesty?”
She motioned with her hand that it would be acceptable.
Her expression flatlined. “Guy at bar with book?”
“Well don’t say that like it’s some-”
“Archetype?” she interjected. “It’s all right to be one.” A whisper: “We’re all something here.”
He chewed the interjection for a beat. “What’re you then?”
“I’m…” She paused to drain the last of her vodka.
You’re drinking too fast, she warned herself.
She rattled the ice, sucked up the first cube, and set the glass down to a pitched *thump*. Then decided: “Girl with nothing happening tonight.”
The man drew a fast counter: “There’s merit to going and watching over your sister on a date.”
“Watching over, sure.” She pressed the cube to the coarsened roof of her mouth, let the cold melt down her tongue. “But she never asked me to- I’m really just watching.”
“Before you mentioned it I never figured people did that.”
“Pick your head up next time you’re on one of those,” she said. “You never know who’s a plant.”
He nodded. “I’m Sydney.”
He noticed her glass. “Buy you another drink to watch em with?”
The question really had presented itself. A Yes exhausted possibility; No, the first syllable of resignation.
Girl with nothing happening tonight, the mantra echoed around her skull. She looked at her phone, her only chosen companion; lonesome thing hadn’t buzzed once. She sorted the static to channel her sister’s date.
“Do you watch The Bear?” one of them asked. She swallowed the smooth remains of the ice cube.
Guy’s more interesting than anything else so far.
Sydney assumed the barstool next to hers. The bartender brought her another vodka with an even bigger cut of lemon. He brought Sydney some radioactive hazy IPA.
The pair touched glasses; Sydney tapped his against the counter before they drank to nothing.
“Midwestern style,” she said. Lena had family on the Upper Peninsula, and they all did that when they drank.
“Never been east of Flagstaff,” he said. “Picked it up bartending.”
“You’re a bartender?”
“Not right now.” Bubbles rushed the mouth of his beer, the stream of formless soldiers snapping against the surface in ordered bursts. “I drive Uber. And I’m working on making it as a musician; Uber’s better for that anyway.”
“Yeah,” he said with a flat smirk. “I write well when I drive- Notes app sorta writing. Steal someone’s good line when I remember one right.”
Her eyes widened in betrayal.
“That’s no threat to you- I don’t write any-a my own personal experience after hours.”
“That sounds impossible,” she measured.
“Well I don’t try to. Promise you no one will ever stream a word about tonight.”
“So you’re online?”
“Am,” he gurgled through a swallow from the beer.
Lena swiped at her phone, poked the green app, and slid the screen over.
His words were swollen with new breath: “No, I won’t do that.”
“What’s stopping you?”
His jaw slackened, top teeth dangling like a necklace of chipped pearls. “That- the music I write, my voice saying the words- that’s not part-a the pickup line.”
“Archetype,” she said.
Lena dragged her finger down the striped edge of the napkin. “I’ll tell you I’m an artist to pick you up but please excuse my art because it’s sacred.” She paused; they each thought about excused art, false idols. “Isn’t it?”
“Maybe you’re right. If I was picking you up.”
“Well whatever you’re doing punch it in.” She nodded at the phone.
“Convincing me I’m unoriginal won’t change my mind.”
She appealed with a squint.
“You could barely hear it now anyways.”
“Maybe I’ll change; have about other things.”
She pressed the button on her phone so the screen *click*-ed away.
“Ask me again sometime.”
Silence began between them. Lena used the straw to force the bloodless lemon wedge past the ice to the bottom of the rocks glass. The chips clacked in separation then reconvened atop the syrupy vodka. The sunken wedge begged for the surface, veins of pulp seeping up through the cracks, every hopeless fiber gasping for one last breath in the future.
“You think they’re hitting it off?” Sydney asked.
Lena looked into the mirror. The man blinked often; Maya leaned both elbows on the table, her hands clasped in an uncertain prayer. A fluid exchange of words. Their pints similarly empty. The man reached for a drag; before the beer passed his lips, Maya seized hers.
“She’s warming up to him,” she decided.
“Why’d you say it like that?”
She hadn’t expected his question. “Like what?”
“Hopeful for my sister?”
She exhaled. Reminded herself the policy she claimed. “I’m invested in this. In them.”
“Well. I set them up.”
“On a dating app?” then he asked the question he meant: “That’s possible?”
She jostled the phone in front of her strawberry face. Clicking the red app summoned a profile, text reading, Maya, 26, foregrounding her sister’s smile. There was a bio too but the sentences were uninteresting. She navigated the screen for another profile belonging to Liam, 27, owner of the red head across from Maya. Sydney looked over his shoulder at the pair; Lena allowed his stare to idle unreasonably. He turned back around. “Oh. You-”
“The profile, the swipe, yes the messages,” she affirmed. “Time and place tonight.”
“I like this bar,” he said.
“I like it too.” A quiet shame slithered up her spine, uncoiled in a chill through her shoulders. She pivoted: “But we don’t need to talk about them anymore.”
“No we don’t,” he said, though he looked less interested in the prospect of another topic. “Well, you already heard all about me and my employment-”
“I didn’t hear all of it,” she interjected.
“And God willing you won’t. Tell me what you do.”
“That’s a new conversation.” She took another plug from her vodka, the swallow sliding down her throat easy like menthol. “You ever heard of atmosphere modeling?”
“I have not. You some kinda scientist?”
“Do I look like one?”
He didn’t answer it like a loaded question: “No you do not.”
“Atmosphere modeling’s more in the… service industry,” she explained. His eyes encouraged her to say more. “I work for an agency. And when people host something- fundraiser, premiere, bachelor party, most types of parties really- sometimes they hire people to-” she buffered. “-to juice the vibes a little.”
“It’s all social- talk to anyone who wants to. Ask questions. Laugh every time it’s suggested. They show you what to wear, you look attractive in it. And if you’re good you smile the biggest anytime you’re in the sight of who hired you.”
“Unnatural?” she coursed through her spectrum of assumptions: “Artificial? Immoral?”
“Not immoral,” he said with a flattened stare. “Those other things you said maybe- I just didn’t know that job existed.”
“Doesn’t all places- I haven’t seen a bar like this hiring yet. But it raises questions.”
“Well go on, you’ve thought about it better than I have.”
She nodded. “Just- commodifying your personality. Transacting your appearances. With no labels-”
“What would a label help?” he asked.
“It wouldn’t pay my rent, but it might be more ethical.”
“I can’t speak to any ethics about socializing, but the function-a your job sounds harmless.”
“Maybe. But it is strange- you could hire me at one of your shows and I’d be there just like everyone else.” A single gasp of laughter. A sharpened suggestion: “Or if you ever really made it someone would hire me and you’d never know.”
“Don’t bring my shows into this.”
“Everyone should prepare equally for the future.”
“I think I’ve seen enough future to feel pretty good a few ignorant make it.” She shrugged. He continued: “And now if I ever see you at my show, I’m just gonna wonder if you’re there on the payroll.”
“Then tell your imagination to shut up- hire me.”
He smiled. “I’ve got savings. But I doubt I can afford a full setlist-a you.”
“Sydney dear-” she reached for his beer, the taste like sucking on mango wrapped in hot wire. “-that’s probably the nicest thing anyone said to me all week.”
Sure enough. Beads of pulp swimming in her vodka, dandelion seeds scattered by acidic wishes. Juice and light in Lena’s fingerprint like a swollen chandelier.
Quiet nights of quiet stars
Quiet chords from my guitar
The song she’d already heard.
Sydney made his big move- his knee against hers, no doubt about it.
She drew back.
He looked like he believed it never happened.
A single prick of regret.
They talked and drank more. She returned her knee where it’d been, see if he had the guts. He found it all right; denim touching denim, a dance of chewy seams and bald-faced caps.
She traced the big blue pipeline of a vein in his forearm;
he teased a strand of hair out from behind her ear.
She drew closer, he spoke softer.
She saw the end.
Chair legs whistled across the tile like a freight train. Lena shaped the sound with her eyes, watched Maya stride toward the bathroom. Sydney noticed too.
She waited a few beats. Marched her fingers on the counter, peeled the pink pads through the hardwood’s sticky gravity. Sydney raised both eyebrows. She exhaled. Excused herself.
The bathroom held the same muted mood, every fixture drowning in shadow and white gasps of light.
Just the two of them here. Maya fingered the skin beneath her eyes in front of the mirror streaked with runny silver snakes. Their eyes made contact in the cracked reflection.
“So?” Lena asked.
“I don’t know yet.” She dug into a blemish with her fingernail. Once dissatisfied with her actions, she coupled her hands beneath the faucet and continued: “He likes movies but no good ones. He says he’s a writer- says it like it’s his identity or something- but I don’t like the way he tells stories.” Lena winced; this was her hand-picked guy. Maya silenced the faucet and softened. “He asks a lot of questions; I think he’s actually listening to what I say. He has nice skin.”
“Well, some of that’s good,” Lena decided.
“Next time we talk I hope it’s all better or worse. Just so I know.”
“Might need a second date for that- that’s the one when he’s supposed to try and give you a big kiss.” She blew a loud one to demonstrate.
Maya shook her head. “Looks like you already figured something out tonight.” She dried her hands with towels stacked on the wide porcelain lip. “I don’t need that mirror behind the bar to see you fallin in luv.”
“He’s fine.” Another woman entered. All three smiled toothless varieties; Lena stepped back and the woman entered a stall.
“Hey, give me your phone,” Maya said, stripping all passion from her tone. “This guy keeps mentioning all the great conversation we had leading up to this- I didn’t memorize that period in our relationship.”
Lena touched an empty pocket. “One second.”
She stepped back into the bar, turned and clocked her phone balanced over the vodka in the stupid way she’d left it.
The Man Without Qualities was there. Sydney wasn’t. She looked toward the entrance.
He hadn’t left but the present sight redefined things. She approached the counter and swiped her phone. She looked back over her shoulder, exhaled for composure, then reentered the bathroom.
Maya danced her thumb on the phone’s face.
“These are pretty good.”
Thanks, Lena said in her throat. A snorting boomed from inside the stall. Both sisters admired the jingle of keys and the shameless crinkle of a plastic baggie.
Maya returned to the messages. “He’s kind of an idiot if he thinks he’s actually drinking with the same broad tonight.” She looked up and found emptiness in her sister’s smile. “Oh, don’t get ethical now- this whole scheme was your bad idea.”
It sure was.
Maya handed the phone back, stole another glance in the mirror. “I’m leaving at the bottom of my drink by the way.” A preemptive wink. “Come home with me or don’t.”
Maya exited as the third woman appeared out from of the stall. They both played it cool while the woman used the mirror, no pupils involved. Lena replaced her while the door swung on its hinges; her color was somewhere far away, any sense of place trapped beneath the weight of a past caving in her chest. She guided the one lost strand of hair back behind her ear with the others then turned toward the door.
Sydney looked as she’d left him the first time, claws clinging to the strange beer, eyes aching with every molecule of hope left in the room.
“What’d I miss?” he whispered as she returned to her barstool. She took a plug from the vodka, let time simmer in her mouth.
“Doubt anything you don’t already know the other side of,” she said.
“Is that right?”
“Think so.” She drank the vodka down more, eyes circling the bar for anything to ground her in this discharged reality.
Silent seconds ticked by.
Nearing on a minute.
“I’m guessing you saw something I didn’t explain.” He said it with a sober streak.
“That or you haven’t mentioned your phone’s stolen.” He nodded at her glass. “I got up to stretch my legs. It was gone when I came back, but I remember you leaving it there.”
“Wasn’t stolen.” Her lips did something neither of them understood. “You can tell me something if you want to.”
“Well Liam-” he squinted. “-Liam’s my roommate.”
Her mind flashed to retrieving her phone, to the buzzed back of Sydney’s head conniving with Maya’s date. She hadn’t known what it meant, just never expected those cards turned up in a pair.
“I didn’t say anything,” he claimed. She didn’t care much either way. “And I’m only here tonight for the reasons I’d guess you are- boredom, loneliness.” He exhaled. “A free ride.”
“I believe you.” Everything was already so contrived, there could only be so much good in the last unfound place. “Just feel stupid is all. And I don’t understand why you didn’t tell me.”
“I would-a said something if I’d known it’d prevent this.” He palmed the paperback, thumbed its pages. “But I guess I can’t change what’s already done.”
She smiled. “That’s just about it isn’t it?”
The next silence softened but persisted. The pair slowly drank away what was left between them.
“I think I’m gonna go have a cigarette.” He fumbled the shape of his pocket, made sure he was still equipped.
“I do when I’m overwhelmed.” He stacked a pack of Reds and a lighter on the counter.
“Must be a hard life to have to carry a pack around.” She swallowed her last vodka, set enough money on the counter.
“You know I don’t think you actually believe that.”
She didn’t look at him.
“Would you come with me?” he asked.
“Sure,” she said.
It was on the way.
The purple night turned cold. The two of them sat alone along a railing, watched pairs of 40 MPH headlights obey lane lines and red stoplights.
“You on any-a these apps as you?” Sydney asked.
“God no,” Lena replied. “Sister’s been in a dark funk. Only way I could get her to go out was setting her up myself; apps became the best way pretty quick.”
The strike of a zippo lighter brought flame and the smell of smoke.
“How do you feel about meeting new people?” he asked through the mouthful of cigarette. “The way we do it now I mean.”
“I think I’ve aged out of making friends.” Lena counted the painted lines of a crosswalk, watched bodies trail into the frictionless dark. “But I have this feeling that before long we’ll discover every rule about interactions there is. And all those rules will write the code for one app we’ll use to meet everyone after our parents.”
“Is that right?”
“Geography, prejudice- there’s always been rules. The old ones get weaker but I hear about a new one faster than I ever used to remember. And I walk around every day waiting for the next one.”
“This anticipation’s starting to sound chemical.” He tapped first ash onto the sidewalk like snow from an asphalt sky.
“I’m in an industry that pays living wages just to show up and like something; we’re reducing everything to foreign parts. And since you asked me that question, I think you know it too.”
Sydney sucked smoke to the bottom of his lungs, spoke through the deep cloud: “Well I can’t talk about your line of work. But far as meeting people goes, I still see the rules you’re talking about as conventions.” A clean exhale. “Course I know your nostalgia. How it is now to see the whole world laid out, feel it happening all around you the way other people want it.”
“I guess it just makes me feel lonely.” She pulled out her phone. “This little solution for everything but itself.”
“When I talk to anyone older than me- or old enough to have to settle their life the old ways- they say they would-a killed for a button in their pocket they could press to meet somebody.”
“I’m sure they would’ve.” She kicked her heel against the railing, braved the crawling metal vibrations. “I just have this fear that loneliness is exponential.”
He smiled. “The history-a different times stretches a little longer every day.”
“So you do know what I’m talking about.”
“That feeling beats me into the ground,” she said. “But you came up and talked to me tonight.”
He exhaled and lowered the cigarette to his hip. Before the small silver balloon floated away, he said: “I think two people will always be small enough to slip through a crack.”
Sydney finished smoking when Lena said goodbye.
She waited on the driver’s side of the sedan, waffle grip sole planted against the blue door. Soon Maya rounded the corner.
“Well this wasn’t the first place I expected you,” Maya said. She tossed the keys, streetlight kissing the metal grooves in tomahawk flashes.
“Here I am.” They entered the car. “So?”
Maya shrugged. “He was better at the end. Said he’d ask me out again- if he does, I’ll go.”
Lena smiled. “I’m glad for you.”
Her pocket vibrated. Lena slipped the screen above the lip; the banner read:
“Hang on.” The message was from Liam, 27.
She stepped outside and watched the three dots dance.
This went on for some time.
Finally, she messaged:
The three dots disappeared. Then started again.
I’m trying to profess something to you
Noooo c’mon profess it to me
I don’t want to anymore
No I already deleted everything and I’m not typing it again
It was gonna be pretty mid anyways
Send me your band
“Archetype,” she whispered.
I’m gonna stop messaging you here
He sent his phone number.
Call me sometime if you wanna try again
She studied the screen a few beats longer then *click*-ed her phone shut. When she looked up new silence dawned; some white slats on a picket fence and the black lawn inside loomed like a page with every answer redacted.
She climbed back into the car. Twisted the lights, turned the keys. Everything happened.
“So what about you and your guy?” Maya asked.
Lena looked at the headlights on the pavement through the windshield. She squinted, awakening orgies of moths and dust writhing inside the latest glow.
I don’t know.
She reached over and flicked the high beams; in that flash she saw it all, then watched it disappear before the first consequence. Still, she stared until her vision glazed, until all matter, color, and absence dissolved into one big nowhere.
Lena shut her eyes, sucked breath down the highway of her chest. She thought about tonight, about the future and circumstance- about how everything happened for the same reasons everything always did. How each decision felt like a battle between sides that never gained an inch and clashed only for the gossip of survival.
So what's the point?
She exhaled, opened her eyes, then noticed the light through the windshield again.
Maybe there isn't one.
And the light looked softer. Clearer. No longer like a promise or a target, but one needle inside the compass of obscurity. And this time-
-this Time, Lena didn’t think about any place that pretty golden light had ever been.
It felt like the first.
Lena found her tobacco eyes in the rearview mirror; a searching smile creased the surrounding skin. She teased a single strand of hair out from behind her ear, swallowed new breath,
“I might call him.”
About the Creator
Very well written. Keep up the good work!
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
Niche topic & fresh perspectives
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme