Oldies Night at Sidetrack by Adrian Slonaker

 

Alex stood against the wall in what is known as the gay bar on Sunday night, Oldies Night. The screen displayed a parade of audiovisual snippets of nostalgia designed to elicit smiles and memories, a kind of escape. But the gay bar itself was a kind of escape from a world where someone felt out of place, marginalized or just plain fucked-up. Alex was supposed to be among his own kind, although even here there was a hierarchy of haves and have-nots. Alex watched the grainy images of Petula Clark and Tom Jones and inhaled slowly on the Du Maurier Ultra-Light cigarettes he knew were turning his fingertips a grotty shade of gold. Yet he did it anyway because the hits of nicotine compensated for lacklustre serotonin levels. If it hadn’t been nicotine, it would’ve been chocolate. And too much chocolate would’ve cause more unsightly damage than a few ochre fingertips.

He didn’t normally drink booze-not even on his twenty-first birthday eighteen months earlier, but he wanted to feel something special, something different. He forwent his Diet Coke and ordered an Absolut blackcurrant slushie. The smiling, tanned bartender, muscles bulging, cheerily handed the slender, overpriced glass to Alex. The bartender smiled at everyone. That’s how he stayed employed. Alex sucked down the sweetness; it reminded him of blackcurrant pastilles he crunched as a lonely suburban child. Then the vodka slammed into his head with a not unpleasant rush. He fellated the straw with more gusto and slurped again. He was now watching the Beatles while simultaneously eyeing the parade of fellas marching, stumbling and sashaying past. Queens, leathermen, bears, twinks, businessmen, pimple-dotted students. Pensive types, sluts, gigglers, the stray fag-hag escorted by her loyal attendants.

He lit yet another Du Maurier. He also lit a Du Maurier for the dude in the blue cowboy shirt next to him who had asked for one, flashing a flirty smile with a hint of somehow genuine warmth surrounded by thick whiskers. ‘Thanks, cutie.’ Sharing the wealth. Building up karma, Alex guessed. The smoky, dim room reeked of liquor. Reeked of sweat. Reeked of masculinity. And cologne sold at a variety of price points. And desperation. Alex wondered who came here on New Year’s. And Christmas.

Alex politely-since his Mennonite parents had once instilled courtesy practically into his corpuscles- edged away from drunken conversation from a skinny, drowsy-eyed twenty-something with stereotypically Polish cheekbones who was floundering in a river of consonants punctuated by a few token vowels. He might have been be trying to pick up Alex. Or sell him cocaine. Or discuss quantum physics. Alex couldn’t understand him due to his slurring and the noise levels. And Alex didn’t want to understand him because he wanted to be left alone. Aloof. Just among people. But detached. Or did he?

The Guy fascinated Alex. Not the drunk, but this other Guy. Unpretentious, blokey, but not cartoonishly so, boxy-shaped, like a pit bull, accessible, low-key, clad in a white t-shirt (or a singlet? It was hard to tell.), black leather biker jacket, blue jeans, trainers. A receding hairline. Fortyish. Or fiftyish. That was honestly hard to tell, too, especially since Alex was bad with ages. And directions, for that matter. The Guy was sipping something piss-coloured, likely a beer. He was studying the Searchers performing on a Ready Steady Go clip. With sad eyes-The Guy, not the Searchers. So The Guy liked ‘Sweets For My Sweet’, an innocent song from a supposedly more innocent era, at least on the surface. Alex didn’t know how to read into that. The Guy had sad eyes too, sad espresso-coloured eyes capable of arresting Alex’s attention. And nice, pulpy lips-but in a butch, Harley-Davidson-riding way. And ebony caterpiller-like eyebrows. And broad shoulders. Boxy, again. Alex wondered who The Guy was.

The Searchers ended their performance to thunderous, decades-old applause on screen, and The Guy slid off his stool, turned and headed out into the street. It was about time. It was getting late. So Alex followed, snaking his way through the dense, throbbing crowd and out the bouncer-guarded door. The mid-May air at 1:00 a.m. was refreshingly cool. Sweeter than the slushie, even in the bowels of the city. Alex followed The Guy as he took a leafy side street. It was on Alex’s way home, after all. The long way home, but still. A few dark blocks down, The Guy crossed the road. Alex had thought he’d caught The Guy peering over his shoulder at him a couple of times. But now the Guy stopped and brazenly stared. Alex followed suit. It was like a hunter face-to-face with his prey, but whether Alex was the hunter or the prey was uncertain. Even he didn’t know. There was only stopping and staring. And silence. Something had to happen. Sometime.


Adrian Slonaker works as a copywriter and copy editor in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada. Adrian’s work has appeared in Always Dodging the Rain, Aberration Labyrinth, Nixes Mate Review, Red Weather, Red Fez and others.

Image Source: Alex Knight

Six Nights by Aileen Ferris

When Colin came into view descending the stairs of the wine cellar, I knew I wasn’t attracted to him.  He was skinny, about my height, and clean-shaven.  He had obviously made an effort, and that put me right off.  It seems counterintuitive not to want someone to make an effort for me, but it contributes to that contrived feeling of being On A Date.  The effort is for themselves, really. I’m more comfortable with people in their natural state, without observance of rules that no one knows who wrote.

He spotted me sitting at the table and waved.  My selfies must at least look recognisably like me.  I took a long gulp from the glass of Malbec in front of me (not intended to be gulped) and stood up to greet him.  A quick, superficial kiss on the cheek – he really was only about an inch taller than me.  How to get through the next hour?  More wine, of course.  While listening politely to stories of his advertising job at a large multinational (you know the one), I guzzled the stuff (not intended to be guzzled).  We (mostly I) went through a bottle quickly and as soon as enough time had passed to excuse myself I did, telling him that this was nice and wishing him safe home.

I checked my phone while walking in the opposite direction.  My friends were in Pantibar dancing, so I joined them and drank some more.  That was where I met Lacey.  She wore baggy jeans and a beanie hat, her soft flesh hanging out self-confidently from her yellow crop top.  She was twenty two, a student from Oregon on a semester abroad, and she knew what she wanted.  We talked, laughed and danced until closing time, when I said I should go home.  She was upfront.  “Can I come?”  Hell yes.  Yes, you can.  Once in my bedroom, she cut through the smalltalk.  “Do you wanna fuck?”  Hell yes.  Yes again.

Lacey wasn’t trying.  She didn’t care what I thought of her.  She had hair on her legs.  She was comfortable in herself, and it was sexy as hell.  She told me about the guys she fucked now and again when she felt like it.  She usually went home right after, but she stayed with me till morning, when we ate hummus and I drove her home.  She was perfectly content.

*

The left are the good guys, we agreed as we walked, feeling reassured and slightly superior to count ourselves among that group.  The only problem is that people on the left are too principled to compromise and this keeps us fractured.  The right is happy to compromise, we supposed, because it has no real principles.  That’s what keeps it in power, and how it perpetuates the oppression of women, gays, trans people, bisexuals, immigrants, Muslims, non-whites, the working class, the disabled, the mentally ill, the chronically ill, artists, the polyamorous, the unemployed and any other group it can get its hands on.  “The right is interested in the good of the individual”, Logan said, “while the left is interested in the good of all.”  I could have fucked him there and then in the street.

Later, we talked about television, which we considered unforgivably low-brow.  Logan breathed his appreciation of Twin Peaks, however, telling me that I would love the music, the intimacy and the broken fourth wall.  I rushed to order the DVDs as soon as I got home.  The interaction between the characters felt staged and surreal, but in Lynch’s stylised ambiance it was believable, as though the unreal was more real than the real.  A hyperreal, Baudrillardian simulation of reality, the cinematography and style winked and grinned at me, like a perfectly made up face with a gaping, dripping wound glaring from the lower lip.  Jarring like the sight of blood on an image of performed beauty, it was impossible to turn away from.

Logan was surprised when I told him I didn’t have a television.  “It’s by choice”, I said.  “But how do you keep up with current affairs?” he asked.  “That’s what Twitter is for.”  And maybe social media has taken television’s place as the dulling apparatus of contemporary times.  In any case, my reflection in the black mirror of his empty television screen while bent over his single bed looked more engaged and present than when in front of screen lit with dancing pixels.

*

I was already drunk when I met the beardy Shinner with the tattooed arms.  We talked about little that I remember, except for the fact that he was in Sinn Féin, and presumably I must also have told him about my own political affiliations.  Both a little the worse for wear, he ended up scrapping with his mate and I ended up kissing someone who called himself a “non-practising Catholic”, thought it would be handiest to baptise his future children to get them into school, and said that politics was boring.  I might have bored him with the reasons why church and state should be separated, but what with all the wine I can’t say for sure.  Either way, the beardy Shinner and I both ended up going home alone.

A week later I found a contact I didn’t recognise in my phone: Cathal.  Confused for a second, and then it came back to me.  He had given me his number.  I was supposed to text him for a drink.  Better late than never, I thought.  He was happy to hear from me, and said he’d be in touch at the weekend.

The following day I crashed my car into the side of a yellow BMW.  Broken neck.  Lying strapped to a board in A&E hours later, I told my sister about Cathal the beardy Shinner.  “You’re going to go out with a Shinner?” she asked, alarmed.  “What are you going to tell Dad?”  “I hadn’t planned telling him anything.  Besides, I’m in no fit state to go anywhere now.”

I didn’t hear from Cathal again.  I saw him at a protest months later.  Too much time had passed to say hello.

*

I met Joanne on a crowded Saturday night.  She was the new friend of my friend, who had met her in the psych hospital.  My friend had gone off her meds and got manic.  She ended up getting arrested for trying to break into the national broadcaster to prove that the government was using radio signals for mind control.  Joanne had borderline personality disorder.  She was a nurse, although not working at the moment.  She was vivacious.  Her huge curves seemed to spill from her dress as she leapt at me to kiss me.  She showed me the little plastic ziplock bag with her meds for the night in it.  There must have been ten tablets.  She was amazed that I could manage my bipolar with just an antipsychotic.  I hadn’t been up or down in over a year, and it helped me sleep, too.  A wonder drug with no side effects, I thought, though I knew that my friend hated it.  She said it messed with her lateral thinking.  I never saw Joanne after that night.

Two years later my friend mentioned her at a party – “Poor Joanne”, with a reflective pause.  “What happened to Joanne?”  My friend looked at me with dismay.  “You don’t know?  Joanne killed herself three months ago.”  I couldn’t distinguish the feeling.  It wasn’t grief – I had hardly known her.  But she was there, she was real, I had touched her skin and kissed her lips, and now only her absence was there.  Only Not Joanne.

*

I wasn’t really attracted to Xavier.  He was nice, and we had good conversations.  He thought Hillary Clinton was a criminal but was voting for her anyway.  I met him two nights in a row just before leaving LA.  It was good to have someone interesting to talk to.  The practice of driving to a bar, drinking, and then driving home would remind me of rural Ireland if this wasn’t such a sprawling metropolis.   Xavier said he was a feminist, but told me that in America the man always pays on a date.  I told him that on the rare occasions when a man insists on paying I get uncomfortable.  What if my date wasn’t a man, anyway?  He paid for dinner, and was impressed when I bought him a drink in return.  It was the least I could do.  He said that he liked this system because “It renders women more independent and puts less pressure on men”.  “It puts less pressure on women”, I told him, “because there’s no unspoken expectation to repay a man with sex.”

We had sex anyway.  I wasn’t that into it, but it had been three months since my ex and two years since anyone else, and I wanted it out of the way.  His flesh was squishy, and his breath smelled.  Just as the thought that America’s culture of body hair removal for all genders was too much floated idly through my mind, he commented “I’ve never had sex with a European girl before.”  Sure enough, I had more hair than him.  I like hair.  Xavier thought it was novel.

*

I sat at the bar waiting for Nico twenty minutes past the time we had agreed to meet.  My phone hopped with frantic texts every few moments, always assuring me that he was two minutes away.  Eventually he appeared, hurrying down the stairs toward me – I recognised the messy black hair and pointed face from his photos – but when he reached the bottom he veered off course and straight into the men’s toilets.  Minutes later, he greeted me.

He was agitated, and drank his pint before I had finished my wine.  Conversation was clipped on his side; gently probing on mine.  Less than half an hour in, Nico lunged at me.  “Lobbed the gob” is the expression my friend used when I described it to her later.  Startled, I froze for a few seconds before extricating myself and returning abruptly to contrived conversation.  He sulked, but kept his hands to himself for at least ten minutes.

He kept bringing the conversation back to an ex-girlfriend of his.  I asked how long the relationship had been over.  Two months, he said.  Gently suggesting that he may not be quite over it yet, I drained my wine glass, making moves to leave.

“You have nothing to worry about”, he insisted, grabbing my arm.

Oh, I thought, that is definitely not what’s going on.  He ordered another round of drinks, as I dropped my coat with dismay.

For hours I tried to remove myself, politeness too deeply embedded in me to stand up and walk away.  I let him rave about filmmaking, LSD and ‘crazy’ girls, all the time searching for my way out.  When I stood up for a bathroom break, he grabbed both my hands.

“I just don’t want to lose you.”

“My coat is still here”, I pointed out with impatience.  “I’m coming back.”

When I returned, Nico took his own bathroom break.  I waited.  And waited.  He was taking his time.  Suddenly it hit me: just leave.  I was out the door and down the street without another thought.

With a dead phone battery and an empty wallet I walked the forty minutes home.  When my phone was revived in the secluded safety of my bedroom, there were six text messages, fourteen missed calls and three voicemails.  They kept coming.  After ignoring many more, I responded asking him to leave me alone.  He said he’d never forgive me.  I blocked his number.

 


Aileen Ferris has published poetry in Route 57, the University of Sheffield’s online literary journal.  A Dublin native, she ran a travel blog at www.frequent-flier.com for some time before turning to writing fiction.  She is also an aerial acrobat and channels her creative energy into that as much as her writing.  This is her first fiction publication.

Image Credit:  Bruno Martins