February 19, 2023

Double Bubble Chapter 12: Of All the Gin Joints

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This entry is part 12 of 14 in the series Double Bubble

Before going any further, a little backstory may help.

Or maybe not.

Honestly, I don’t even know why the fuck you’re still here. Whenever someone wants to tell me their story, I am the guy who pulls the fire alarm and looks for the nearest fucking exit. Most people drone on and on and on about this sad thing or that sad thing and blah, blah, fucking blah. Whenever other people start in with their sad story, I always find myself thinking, what am I, a fucking therapist?

So, I get it. Believe me, no one is less interested in my sad story than yours fucking truly. But if you will indulge me a minute, I’d like to tell you a bit about Ashley Parker. It’s not that I want to share. I’m not Barney the fucking Dinosaur, and this isn’t a re-run of Romper Room. But it is ten o’clock at night, and I have had a few drinks, and she has just walked into the joint.

And she is sublime, like a tempestuous sea at sunrise. I’m a wordy guy, but I have no other words to describe her. My heart is an antique kerosene lamp, and Ashley is the lit wooden match. My joy of seeing her here is tempered only by my sorrow of having wasted so much of my time trying to avoid seeing her again.

And I know what you’re thinking, right? Sure is lucky I ran into her tonight. Lucky? Sure. A chance meeting, as lucky and as unplanned as seeing stars at midnight. Seeing her here may be lucky, but it is no surprise. I know her well. Like the lyrics of an old song, you haven’t heard in a while. Always a little hazy at first, but the words return by the time the chorus starts. You only think you forget. And like that old song, seeing her standing there with her friends, arrived from who knows where, laughing lightly, smiling brightly, well, you’ll excuse me if I wax poetic for a moment.

Like all fairy tales, ours started in law school. If you’ve never been, you’ll be glad you didn’t. Law school is a forced march through a swamp of stuffy, stupefying professors, into a jungle of aspiring, conniving lawyers, each clambering to gain a better perch on an imaginary ladder to nowhere, across an endless desert of historical legal cases rife with the worst of human emotion, until you finally arrive at your destination, broken, bitter, and bored.

It is not the kind of place that gets preserved for posterity in epic ballads. You won’t find an ode to law school among any of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poems, no matter how much its graduates believe their tour was akin to the charge of the light brigade. Whatever ideals I held before attending law school, none survived the encounter.

By the time we graduated, Ashley was at the top of our class, and I was at the bottom. She was being scouted, I was being scorned. She was rising the ranks, I was stalled, if not plummeting. But we were friends. Maybe even best friends, although I hate the expression and all the high school drama it invokes. But it was law school. Both of us were too busy to bother with love or romance or sex. Our relationship had no label at a time when labels were still in vogue and all the rage. And then it was over.

She joined Dexter, Frost straight out of school and had already made partner by the time I started there four years later. She was the reason I joined. She was the reason I stayed. She wasn’t the reason I left. But she is the reason I’m here in this bar tonight.

Lucky? Not a chance. Love is a military campaign that must be meticulously planned. I’m like fucking Hannibal marching his elephants across the goddamn alps. But my being here must appear random. Or at least unplanned. So I try not to stare or to call attention to myself. She’s not dumb. She’ll know this isn’t random. But I’m planning on a charade of plausible deniability. Just another of life’s happy coincidences. I’m not some clingy needy guy hauling my ass through a barren wasteland in search of love. I’m just a guy having a beer and watching the hockey game. So I keep my eyes glued to the big screen television, and I try and blend in with all the other drunken rabid sports fans crowding the place. I got to see her. So even if she doesn’t see or talk to me, I’ll still count it as a win. But if she does, well, I figure that will make all the time I spent not dying over the past two years worth all the suffering.

The game is a lively affair. Too lively. The noise has forced her and her friends to draw inwards to their own little bubble of tranquillity. She isn’t paying any attention to anyone else. They have secured a table not far from the bar, and I decide I need to escalate my campaign if I’m going to attract her notice. I take a breath, stand up, and sidle to the bar. To maintain plausibility, I keep my back to her while I order, but I’m secretly hoping she’ll look up and notice me in the mirror behind the bottles of alcohol lining the bar.

There are four of them huddled together at a table, and judging by their evening wear, I know my hunch has paid off. They were at the National Arts Center across the street for the premiere of HMS Pinafore. Ashley loves Gilbert and Sullivan, and I knew she wouldn’t pass up the chance to see one of her favourite operettas.

The bartender returns with my drink, I take a sip and linger, hoping she will look up, but she doesn’t. Her complete focus on her friends would be infuriating if not for the fact that I admire her for being present and giving them her undivided attention. In a frenetic and frenzied world, Ashley is one of the few people I know who doesn’t fixate on her phone or on her social status. Still, I need to do something to get her attention or my entire campaign to reconnect with her will fizzle. I thought seeing her would be enough. But now I long for more.

So I do what all boys do when they are trying to catch the eye of the girl, I create a scene by accidentally intentionally tripping a big burly beer-drinking dude who loses his footing, spins like a lumbering ballerina, before crashing into the ground like the Kitty Hawk on its maiden voyage. The glass breaks, sending beer sloshing over me and the dude and the floor and in the commotion, she finally looks up and sees me. I’m still pretending to apologize to the burly beer dude who is also apologizing to me, and before long, we are hugging it out — fucking shoot me now — and order is restored. The waitress brings him another beer, and he drifts off into the crowd, none the wiser.

The plan works because no sooner has he fucked off than she walks over. Looking like a klutz is a small price for love. I doubt Hannibal could have done any better.

“Will,” she says.

I look up at her and smile. I’m going for an air of surprise, but she’s the one person on the planet I have never been able to lie to and so I quickly divert my eyes under the guise of sopping up beer from my shirt.

“Hey,” I say, looking anywhere than at her.

“I didn’t expect to see you here,” she says.

“I was thinking the same.”

I look past her to her friends. They are eying me suspiciously, like they figure I’m a fucking Jack the Ripper type and stalking Ashley. I nod at them as much to distract Ashley as to avoid looking at her directly and giving myself away.

“Out with friends,” I say.

“We were just at the NAC,” she says.

“Oh?”

“Ya,” she says. “HMS Pinafore.”

I finally turn my eyes back to her while still trying to mop up the beer on my shirt.

“You look fantastic,” I say.

She looks at me and smiles.

“You look drenched.”

“Well,” I say. “You know me, I can hand, reef, and steer…”

She laughs.

“But you are never, never sick at sea,” she says.

“Well, hardly ever,” I say.

We both laugh.

“It’s good to see you, Will,” she says.

I smile. “Can I buy you a drink?” I say.

“I don’t know.”

She looks back at her friends and frowns. I follow her eyes. I wish they would fuck off, but I don’t want to make her uncomfortable.

“I understand,” I say. “Maybe another time.”

I smile. She hesitates.

“Maybe one,” she says. “Give me a minute.”

She walks off to her friends. A brief animated conversation follows, with various poisonous looks cast in my direction. I pretend not to notice. The conversation over; she grabs her clutch and walks back to me.

“Sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean to disrupt your night.”

“No, no,” she says. “It’s fine. But we took my car so I can’t stay long. I told them I was going to have one drink so…”

“No problem,” I say.

We move back to my table. She takes a seat opposite. She orders a drink, and we settle in.

“So, HMS Pinafore,” I say. “That has always been one of your favourites. How was it?”

She smiles.

“So good,” she says. “The music was fantastic and who doesn’t like a love story.”

I take a sip of my drink. “Love levels all ranks, right?”

She smiles. “Exactly.”

“Except,” I say, “love didn’t level out the ranks.”

She frowns.

“It did for Josephine,” she says.

“Hah,” I say. “Only after Buttercup confessed to fucking everything up and depriving Ralph of his birthright.”

She swats me playfully and laughs.

“That’s not what happens and you know it?”

“Pretty sure it is,” I say. “Buttercup mixed up babies or something and when the truth finally emerged, Josephine finally agreed to marry Ralph. Love conquers all indeed.”

“That’s not how it happened,” she says.

“Uh-huh,” I say.

“You used to be more romantic,” she says.

She takes a sip of her drink, and we look at each other quietly for a moment.

“Maybe,” I say, “though, honestly, I always thought it was creepy that Josephine was going to marry a man old enough to be her father. What was that about?”

She laughs.

“Ya,” she says. “There’s that. But the music is wonderful.”

I smile.

“That’s why I’ve always considered myself on Team Buttercup,” I say.

She arches an eyebrow. “Team Buttercup, eh?” she says.

“That’s right. A girl that sells snuff and tobaccy, and excellent jacky, what’s not to love.”

She laughs. My heart ignites.

“I see,” she says. “And all this time I thought you were pining for a different Buttercup?”

“Oh?” I say.

She smiles. “I remember you were always raving like a lunatic about rescuing your Buttercup from the six-fingered man and—“

“No, no,” I say. “You’re all mixed up. The man in black was rescuing Buttercup from—“

“I’m sorry about the other night,” she says. “I wish…I wish it had been less unpleasant. I—“

“It’s alright,” I say. “Terrence has always been the master of unpleasantness.”

She smiles thinly. I take a sip of my drink. I need to change the subject. I don’t really want to talk about him. I want to talk about us. I want to know if she is seeing someone. I want to know if she misses me. I want to apologize for ghosting her these past two years.

“Besides,” I say. “It wasn’t entirely unpleasant, right?”

She smiles again. Bigger this time, the tip of her tongue peeking out between her white teeth.

“Not entirely, no,” she says.

I return her smile. My heart is racing. I try and muster my courage, but she beats me to it.

“Why are you here, Will?” she says.

“What do you mean,” I say. “I…I was just here watching the game.”

Her bright eyes cut through the fog of my bullshit, and all I can do is look down and take a sip of my drink. I rehearsed this campaign a million times on my way over here, but now that the moment is here, I don’t know what to say.

She looks around, the crowd is thinning out.

“Game’s over,” she says.

“I guess it is,” I say.

We stare at each other. My courage has fled, my ship is sunk, another titanic disaster. She looks over my shoulder. I turn and see her friends standing up, putting on their jackets. I need more time. I need to salvage this moment.

“I’ve got to go,” she says.

Before I can say anything, she’s standing up. “It was good seeing you again, Will.”

She looks at me expectantly. This is it. It’s now or never.

“You too,” I say.

I can see the disappointment in her eyes. I want to take it back. I want to tell her how much I miss her. I want to tell her to stay. But I don’t. And before I can, she’s gone.

And then it’s just me, my gin, and a sad song.

Series Navigation<< Double Bubble Chapter 11: A Stroke of LuckDouble Bubble Chapter 13: I Squeeze a Grapefruit Now and Again >>