She hunches over and tugs the skivvy from her stomach, but the fabric is wet and sticks with a thwack. Stepping inside she remembers how it always rains on her birthday. Pulling a sweater around her, she runs her hand through her hair to dry it out. People look, and she can’t escape the feline sensation of moving toward the bar. With swift delicacy she pauses to hear the soft croons from the band-room and knows that’s where he’ll be.
Stealing a corner and jamming herself between a cigarette machine and the bar, she finds a stool and welcomes the thick voices around her. Candles flit their shadows across the carpet, but then rise through the plumes of smoke folding into the room’s hemisphere. They create a wall that doesn’t quite float but hangs above their heads. ‘It’s a long way from the ceiling’ is what he always said. Especially when he refused to leave. He once informed her that it held the acoustics in, keeping barroom conversations in flux, as if a room of strangers had nowhere else to go or nothing else to do. But it was an exquisite trick the way she loved him then; even though she had always thought it were, he the magician, and she, the damned bunny rabbit. It was probably because she didn’t drink.
Fumbling for her wallet, she tosses her fringe and edges a man aside, demanding a glass of red. Running the tips of her fingers around the glass she considers it, until her belly is warm and willing. She can’t remember the last time they had sex. He said it filled him with remorse, and that without ambition nothing would come to fruition. He liked to rhyme like that, for no apparent reason. She told him it confused her, both the abstinence and rhyme, and that even the flimsiest of couplets would not save her from sinking with an empty stomach. She takes a sip.
‘So, we’ll stay childless then?’
He had nodded. ‘Yep.’
Not having children didn’t bother her. It was his reluctance to make the decision with any conviction that riled her. Yet while he babbled on in what he perceived as poetic sadness, she stood aside, spuriously lauding his mental unseemliness.
Outside a red bus screeches, its lights dim and vacant through the window. She clenches her toes, wary of how steep the turn will be at the roundabout. Who in hell wants to go home alone she thinks. Even after she had followed him to the city, and to this one after that, there were still no rhymes in her bag to help her run, from the relentless recounting of stories a-thousand-times-told, about poets and post offices, and him stumbling, forgetting the names of streets, women and old men.
Clutching her drink, she gulps it down wondering if there’s a fortune to be told in the dregs, or whether it’s not just a matter of having your palm read. But the band has finished and he is suddenly there, sliding from the doorway and along the wall. She watches him in falsetto, with fingers on imaginary frets playing improper scales and past songs to the tune of papers in his fists; balled-up poems written in a ghoulish scrawl – his capitals hardly anything his friends can comprehend. They are words he didn’t write, but by people she reviled and who he once admonished, but then found the currency of verse in the deep clasp of a hand, who in turn would get the next shout.
She stoops on the stool unready to reveal herself, hidden from his glance behind the bar’s oaken barricade and army of bottles and taps. The window reflects her waning portrait, timid in disbelief. Here she is again, the ice queen of her dreams standing on the lake desperately seeking spring. Instead, she’s caught by the foreboding winds that crack on the surface of her face.
Fighting him had always compelled her not to drink. It was the dew on his skin that bore the immediate portents, his sweaty grin and cork-eyed pugilism, the scuffed knee and freight train sleep that always plagued the nights once the sex had ended and brought her to the point of defeat. But all were gathered in her battle to persevere while he sung about the world-wearisome and argued with his parents on idealism. Picking him from the sticky floors of his renditions and drainpipe spout was a business even the poor musician did not understand. And so she snapped, falling beneath the ice, and fucked the boy on drums. In the freezing clarity of sober abandon, she knew he couldn’t know.
Rubbing her sleeve on the window as the water streams silently outside, she sees the bus gone and a reflection motioning for another drink. Looking deep into the glass she can only see her outline and her gouged out eyes. Another? She shudders, standing quickly to avoid the vague plum she imagines between her thighs.
Caught in the undertow she’s pulled toward the counter where she spies him traversing the back-bar. With arms raised for the word orchestra, he lets the unheard notes splash in the amber as he moves within the detritus of his subterranean style-brokers. She sees the usual hangers-on and those still in their leathers, drinking stoically with their hand at the hip. They guffaw and cry. He cajoles again while they swallow his verbosity and din. She wants to slip between the bar and the foot-rung into a broken hiss of water, leaving her feet knocking the last ledge of ice.
With a bristling jaw he pulls his jacket cuffs and rumpled cloth askew, its collar rubbing the tendrils around his neck. Veins run like rivets down his cheek, scraggy from cheap whiskey and former acne. Unashamed and a raconteur at heart, his arms swing a tale for his friends, roping in any loose rouseabouts. Struggling for momentum and subject to a few hiccups and clouts, he continues the saga clutching the bar with pebbly knees jolting in and out. They giggle at his monstrosity and nod her way, passively bemoaning the interruption and perhaps foreseeing a joust. With a smile too wide he can’t downplay his surprise. Running doggishly toward her, she now sees the rungs of disguise to where his fears and ambitions have deserted him, lying supine in what she sees as her own empty gut.
‘Hey strong stones.’ He gasps.
‘You mean strong bones?’ She counters solemnly.
‘No no. Stones stones.’
‘I think you mean stoned stoned.’
He shirks at his indignity and whispers Happy Birthday in her ear. Eyeing the congealed stout in the crevasse of his mouth she detects the wine stains on his teeth; yellows and reds mingle with the clouded colour of sweat and piss on his shirt. Tugging at his shirttails he attempts the pose of a respectable lout. But it’s an awkward fit, and no more sartorial than an eel’s best coat. Nevertheless he leans in to whisper, or kiss.
‘No love. Love. Love is strong stones.’
And with a great throat of laughter he holds her and starts to sing his case of bellicose blues. But before he can thwart her she tells him she’s leaving. And they stare sidelong at each other until she thinks she sees a stark earnestness creep in. He drops her a crumpled poem on the bar, but she turns quickly holding her belly, and her dirty unborn secret flushes away as she scuttles for the bus up the street.