She’s crying into her drink and the world keeps dancing. Like it always does, of course, war or no war. Tears or no tears. Not that she expects it to stop. But there’s a part of her that wants to be Margo in All About Eve - to lose it completely, let it all out in a rage, jump up, throw her glass at the shelf behind the bar, and scream into the face of anyone who will listen.
Or maybe just cry into someone’s shirt. That will do, too.
She sighs sharply, choked breath hissing through her lungs. She clicks her cracked nails on the glass and stares into the pale yellow swirl of her Sidecar cocktail. It reflects her flushed cheeks and golden fringe that almost covers her eyes.
The years have not been kind. In more ways than one. Not that she’s ever cared about how she looks, but her gaunt appearance is proof she’s endured. That she had a life, and that it hurt her.
Life hurts everyone when there’s a war.
She doesn’t hear him scrape the stool up to hers. Doesn’t register his shadow as it brushes across the worn oak wood of the counter and dulls the glitzy liquid in her glass.
“Didn’t know salt comes with the cocktails around here.”
Her head jerks up, and she almost falls off her stool. He grabs her arm just in time, but she shakes it off, hair spilling over her shoulders. Through the slash of gold hair, he sees her eyes, red-rimmed and empty. He knows that look. He sees it every time he faces his sister-in-law.
“What?” she says under her breath, scrambling upright, her right hand shooting across the counter and clutching her glass.
“Nothing, uh. Bad - bad joke.”
“Oh.” She stares down at her drink. Sniffs, and hopes it wasn’t too loud or too obvious. But then again, he’s obviously just seen her crying.
She swallows the next sob. She ducks her head and her fringe covers her eyes. She can’t see, but she doesn’t care.
“I have to ask.” The man turns on the stool and faces her, his right arm leaning on the counter. His voice is soft, cautious. “Are you alright? And I didn’t mean anything by what I said – thought it was funny, opened my mouth, and it wasn’t.”
“Well, I was crying.” She swallows and gulps down the rest of her cocktail.
“None of my business, though,” he argues.
“No,” she admits. Finally she glances sideways at him. “It’s not what you think, anyway.”
He holds up his hands, and his eyes are bright, alarmingly innocent, and suddenly she wants to smile at the expression on his face.
But she doesn’t.
“I’m not thinking anything,” he protests.
“Oh you are.” She snorts. “Or you were.”
“I swear, I’m - ”
“It’s not about a guy.”
She shrugs, shifts on her seat. Sniffs again.
“People see a crying woman at a bar, they think it’s because of a man. A woman cries, and it’s either because it’s her time or because she’s single.” She shrugs. “Well I’m not.”
“That was going to be my next question.”
She looks at him.
He shakes his head and his shoulders slump as if he wants the floor to swallow him up. “Another bad – it’s a bad joke. I’m a – a bad joke.”
She just smiles, albeit weakly. Turns back to her drink. For a while, there’s silence. Not in the bar - people are laughing, talking, voices coursing with alcohol and bouncing off the walls and glasses clink and shatter and music’s coming from somewhere – but right here, between them, there’s a pause.
And maybe they both need it.
“Well, I’m not pathetic either.” He clears his throat, sits up a little straighter and gestures to the barman for a drink. “I mean, it goes both ways right?”
She smiles into her drink. Nods cautiously.
He continues, “Theoretically, if we were in a book, or a movie, we’d be those people. You’d be crying – he’d stood you up, right? And I’d come in, buy you a drink. Sit with you. Maybe there’d even be a bar fight and I’d defend your honour or something.” At this, she raises her eyebrows, but he keeps going: “And then we’d go back to my place.”
“I mean, I’m sure it’s hypothetically, not theoretically.”
“Oh.” He glances down at the drink the barman’s slid across to him. “Of course…”
“And good story, by the way. Just a bit unoriginal.”
“More unoriginal than this?” He raises his eyebrows, smile breaking across his face.
He’s young, she thinks. And she grins, nods, because it’s impossible not to grin at the look on his face.
“We’re breaking some kind of record here,” she says.
“Handkerchief?” He holds one out.
After a moment, she takes it, and quickly. Their hands don’t even touch.
She wipes at her face and he turns back to his drink, where he’s beginning to think he should’ve stayed all along. He’s not here to make conversation with a lady. He doesn’t know why he’s here. Well, fine, yes, he does. But that’s not important right now.
He glances over at her, and she’s ordering another drink. She catches him looking at her.
She sips the cocktail the instant the barman places it in front of her. Her golden hair spills over her face, gets in her mouth.
“My hair’s stupid,” she says under her breath, her voice raspy from crying.
“You look like Grace Kelly,” he hears himself saying.
She laughs, but it’s more of a sob. “I don’t feel very sophisticated right now.”
He knows he should get up, go look for who he came here to look for, but he can’t walk away.
“Can I do anything?” he asks.
She doesn’t hear him because she’s blowing her nose so loudly. People glance over at them.
“I messed up your handkerchief,” she says.
“Oh I don’t care. I have more. My mother made us about twenty each when we were growing up, and I still use them.” He says this to make her laugh, to bring out a smile, but she catches onto the part he doesn’t want her to catch onto.
“We?” she says into the snotty tissue.
She glances up, then, and frowns.
He doesn’t tell her that she’s got bright red lipstick smeared across her cheek.
“Is your brother here?”
“Probably.” He keeps the smile on, but he’d rather talk about her. He’d rather avoid the topic of his brother for as long as possible.
She nods slowly, and scans his face. And then decides not to press further.
“My brother used to come here,” she says.
“A few times a week. To dance, you know.”
“There’s jukebox in the back. He’d come on, grab a girl to dance with, and away they’d go. Everyone would be clapping, swishing their drinks, flinging their bodies around.”
“You came with him?”
“Every time. He’d always dance with me first.” She smiles, and her eyes are sparkling not from tears, but from the memory. “I was just a little girl. He’d lift me up onto his boots and spin us around the room. All the girls were in love with him, and I remember being proud he was my brother and I was going home with him.”
Her words sting, and he hates that. He hates the tightening in his chest, and the heaviness of knowing what’s going on in other parts of the bar, and what’s been going on for years ever since the war ended, and how she’s incidentally reminded him of that.
“I was only a girl,” she goes on. “But I’d come, and watch my brother dance with every girl in the place.”
She opens her mouth as if to keep talking, but doesn’t. She glances down at her drink.
“Did you serve?” she asks.
He shakes his head, and his chest throbs as if there are bees swarming inside. “No, but my brother did.”
Her eyes show the realisation. But she doesn’t comment on it.
He sits up straighter, forcing his voice to be calm, collected, warm. “Is your brother here now?” he asks.
She shakes her head, and her head droops back into her glass as she presses it to her lips.
He doesn’t ask. Doesn’t have to. Suddenly he wishes he’d never come up to her. He came here for a reason, and a woman with flaming red hair, a bright blue cardigan, white gloves, a pencil skirt and a patterned belt is not the reason. However stunning she looks, or however much he’s enjoying the escape of talking to her.
Because he is. He truly is.
So he asks her, “Dance with me,” and holds out his hand.
She freezes. “What?” The glass is halfway to her mouth.
“They still got the jukebox in the other room. We could dance. You can’t cry if you’re dancing.”
She watches his face, reads it. He doesn’t pull his gaze from her, either, and in the silence their message is comforting. He wants to dance, even though he’s never danced in his life. She wants to spin and sway to the music and treasure the memories, and for them not to hurt.
He gets to his feet.
And she stares. For a moment it’s all she can do.
He limps over to her. Even with one leg shorter than the other, he is taller than she is.
She takes the hand he holds out and breaks her gaze from his leg.
To him, it doesn’t matter. It only mattered when he couldn’t leave with his brother and fight for his country. Then, it hurt. The shame was scalding.
But it doesn’t matter now.
They step into the next room. A few people are slumped around the scattered tables and chairs, drinks and cards splayed on the wood, voices lazy and static and dulled by alcohol.
The lamp flickers in the corner. Another swings from the ceiling. The air is hot and dry.
She is dizzy with the memories, with the pain spiking through her body. She hangs onto his shoulders, her feet gliding silently on the floor, her body brushing against his. His right hand is on her waist. His left hand touches her arm, guiding her.
The jukebox plays Put Your Head On My Shoulder by Paul Anka. It envelops both of them.
“Is your brother dead too?” she asks finally, cracking the silence.
It comes like a razor down his chest, and his hand tightens on her waist and he wants to crumple at her feet. Her words so soft, and so loud, and the world doesn’t care.
He shakes his head. He can feel her breath on his bare skin, through the open collar of his shirt.
She sighs, ever so softly, and he feels her tears on his shirt.
“Where is he?” she asks.
“Gambling. The back room. Every night, he’s here.”
For a while they don’t say anything. They just move to the music and let it spiral their minds elsewhere.
“Will you go look for him?” she asks finally.
He shakes his head, but he doesn’t know why he’s doing it.
“Every time I do,” he says, and he says it solely to her, bending down, his mouth close to her ear, holding onto her for air, “I go after him. I wait until he’s drunk himself into a stupor, and then I carry him home to his wife. Every night the same. And I think of all the conversations we could have, and how I have no right, because I don’t know, I never knew, how it felt. The war. What happened. It hurts,” he says, “but it’s not allowed to hurt us. Not really.”
She’s still. She stops moving and stands there, staring at him.
“Sometimes I think that if my brother came back, he wouldn’t dance.” She wipes at her face, tears streaming down her cheeks, hair matted on her shoulders. “I don’t – I don’t know what to do.”
He doesn’t have an answer, but he answers anyway. “We wait, like the fools we are. We wait for it to stop hurting and we dance through it. And we pick them up, and we carry them here.” He touches his chest, and she shudders, and he takes a step towards her while she covers her face with her hands.
“I don’t know,” he whispers. “I’m sorry.”
Her soft sobs peel apart the room, but no one seems to hear her. He doesn’t take another step towards her; instead, he glances into the room to his right where his brother is laughing.
His attention jerks back to her. “What?”
“I’ll wait,” she says quietly, wiping at her eyes. She glances across at an empty table in the corner. “Get us some drinks.”
“Why?” he asks.
“Why? I can help. Carry him home. Is he married?”
“Yes. And – and two children.”
She nods, as if that decides it. “Get us some drinks. We’ll wait together.”
He watches her walk to the corner table and sit down. She takes off her long white gloves and lays them on the wood. When he realises she’s not leaving, he goes to the bar.
As she sits there, she can see them: brother and sister, twirling in the middle of the floor, folks cheering and laughing around them, the air floating with the sweet tang of cocktails, ladies in glitzy gowns and Audrey Hepburn hairstyles, the men pumping their boots on the floor till it shudders, and the expression on the girl’s face as she looks up at her brother, at the giddiness and innocence on his face as he spins her around and around on his feet, his hands careful and strong, never letting her fall.
The memory will stay. It’ll always be there, deep inside of her.
And she holds it tightly. It’s all she has.