by Melissa Rohen
The coolness of the bar sent shivers overs Mavis’ flesh as she stepped through the scarred wooden doorway. The dim, dry air served a stark contrast to the muggy heat of midsummer pounding on the pavement outside. The humidity made her hair, normally smooth and somewhat collected, float about her head like a frazzled red cloud – despite the industrial strength elastic and plethora of bobby pins she'd used in a vain attempt to tame it down before leaving the house. She felt damp, sticky, unkempt.
She disliked feeling damp, sticky, or unkempt.
The sweat gathering in the hollows and crevices of her body – under her arms, in the folds beneath her breasts, at the base of her spine just below the too tight waistband of her jeans – had little to do with the weather, though. She'd not stepped foot in The Broken Violin in six months, twelve hours, and, she glanced at her watch, thirty-seven minutes.
She was on edge. Hell, if she were honest, she'd admit to being nervous, perhaps even scared – of stepping foot back in her old haunt. Of seeing her again.
She hadn't seen Avery for six months, twelve hours and thirty-five minutes.
It had been a long six months. She wondered if it had been long enough.
She glanced around the familiar room and smiled despite her nervousness. Patrons milled about everywhere, taking advantage of the Friday evening and its freedom from work and responsibility; talking, flirting, swaying to the vintage tunes streaming from an equally vintage jukebox.
The place was swanky, but not in that pretentious way that was the current trend. There were no mason jars, no purposefully outdated, intentionally obscure witticism scrawled on chalk boards, and the only mustaches in sight were the well-kept ones on the occasional male patron.
As she looked around, she could feel her pulse beating heavily in her veins, a tangible pumping beat just below the thin skin of her wrists, her neck, her temples. One step at a time, Mavis, she told herself. Like in the meetings. One step. Then another.
Her gaze fell on the familiar bottles behind the bar – Dewar’s, Grant's, and good old Johnnie Walker grinned back at her. She missed them, missed their taste, missed the burn of them as they slid down her throat to settle warmly in her belly. She missed how they made her forget.
She could imagine how the liquid amber would glint as it settled into a clear glass, familiar and full of unspoken promises. She took a step towards them. Then another.
A man, his frame slender, lithe, graceful, moved into her line of vision, effectively cutting off the luring temptation of those old friends. She felt a brief moment of irritation before recognition bloomed.
“Teddy!” She said, her voice warming with the first genuine tenderness she'd felt in months as she glanced up at him - the bottles and their promises momentarily forgotten.
Teddy the Bartender, a gentleman known by his job title like an old-school gangster, was tall and pretty, almost feminine, with his angular green eyes, burnished skin, and hair the color of dark roasted coffee. He had an air of ethereal fragility that hung about him, as if he would break apart with a too strong wind.
She'd missed him, too.
“Mavis,” he said, his own voice warm with familiarity.
She wondered briefly what he thought of her, returning here, after such an absence. Had he wondered about her disappearance? Would he judge her, as so many had? As she had?
“Usual table, then?” he asked, glancing over his shoulder towards the spot that had been hers, that had been their favorite seat. His voice was lyrical, flowing like an unfamiliar song, as he spoke. “Will Avery be joining you?”
Avery. At the sound of her name on her old friend’s lips, Mavis' belly tightened in a hard knot that left her feeling queasy.
“Been a long time since you two have been in,” Teddy continued when she remained silent. “Six months it's been, right? A bit long for a honeymoon, even for two lovely birds like you.”
Six months was a long time for a honeymoon, Mavis thought with a trace of bitterness. Too long. But there hadn't been a honeymoon. There hadn't even been a wedding. Just an accusation, Avery's judgments, and the painful wakefulness of sobriety.
“No,” she shook her head, ignoring the roiling in her stomach. “I mean, yes. Yes, she'll be here. But no...” she swallowed, letting the words trail into uncomfortable silence.
She felt Teddy’s eyes on her as the long fingers of his left hand led a cloth along the deep dark surface of the wooden bar. The gesture seemed absent-minded, born of routine. His gaze made her uncomfortable.
“That's how it is, then?” he asked.
She nodded and shifted her gaze from Teddy to the shining bottles behind him. It was too soon to be here, she thought. Too soon to see her, to see Avery, in all her pretty perfection. The realization unnerved her more than she liked.
One day at a time, Mavis, she reminded herself. With a nod at Teddy, she turned and took deliberate steps towards a high top table in the corner.
As she slid into her old seat, she looked around again, allowing the pleasure of familiarity to soothe her nerves. Teddy's was the type of place Frankie or Deano would have been comfortable in. Its old-school jazzy vibe reverberated through the dark colors that adorned the walls and heavy furniture. It was all various shades of mahogany, reds, and navy blues so dark as to be almost black. The lighting was dim, the air thick with stale smoke, and the waitresses were just the right amount of old school floozy in their too-tight dresses and flirtatious smiles. It was a lovely place, but ragged around the edges.
She had fallen in love with it from the first day she'd stepped in and mourned like she’d lost a friend the day she'd stepped out.
A bar was no place for an alcoholic, she knew. Except, she thought with a small laugh, it was the perfect pace for an alcoholic. And, she rationalized, it was the only place she could meet Avery. The only neutral ground they had left to talk and, she hoped, to find closure.
There was no sign of the insufferably beautiful, invariably cool, always uptight figure of her ex yet. That was reassuring. Avery was always late.
For once, Mavis was glad of the old, grating habit.
A glass of water materialized in front of her. Teddy smiled down at her, his gaze free of judgment, as though she hadn't just revealed the depths of her failure to him. He was the bartender, his glinting eyes seemed to say; it was his place to serve, not to judge. She was grateful for that old habit, too.
“What'll it be, love.”
It wasn't a question, she knew. Teddy did not take his patrons' orders. He simply brought them drinks. It was part of his mystique, part of his magic--Teddy just knew what you needed. It was why, on any given night, there was never an empty seat in the entire joint. Everyone in the city, it seemed, sought the understanding and solace, the escape, Teddy could bring them.
Reaching into her purse, Mavis pulled out a cigarette, lighter, and a small round disc. She flipped it up to Teddy, who caught it with a quick, sharp gesture.
He glanced down at the shape, his eyes widening fractionally as he realized what it meant. “Six months.” His smile deepened, the gesture bringing out a small dimple in his left chin. “A coincidence?”
She shook her head, “No, just perfect timing, I guess.”
“Congratulations are in order then, love.” He tossed it back to Mavis with a nod. “Good to see you again.”
“Thanks, Teddy,” she said, warmed by his support, watching as he walked back to his station behind the bar. He looked thinner, she thought. Or, perhaps it had just been too long since she had seen him.
With a click, she flicked the lighter open and put the flame to her cigarette. She took a deep draw, enjoying the slight burn of the smoke as it flowed down her throat into her lungs. She looked back at the bottles behind the bar. The bottle of Dewar’s seemed to wink at her.
“I honestly didn't think you could do it.”
The voice was familiar, rich, with clipped consonants; it flowed against Mavis' skin like a caress and she felt herself want to smile out of habit despite the harsh bluntness of the words.
Her eyes shifted to take in the woman standing next to the table. She was gorgeous, in an old-money way: elegant with her long, lithe frame–not too curvy, not too thin–in a designer skirt and matching blouse. Her hair, impeccable even in this humidity, was a curtain of gold, flowing down her shoulders to the middle of her back. Her eyes, as sharp as her consonants, were a shade of blue Mavis had wished to forget, but never seemed able to.
Her collected elegance made Mavis feel like a disheveled, less-than-hot mess.
Even so, the small and familiar tightening warmth flickered to life deep inside her belly as she remembered the feel of those long limbs wrapped around her, those breasts pressed against her own. An unwanted stirring flickered between her legs. It had always been like that between them; a quick, intense, consuming arousal that burned until quenched and then burned again. Some things never changed.
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Avery,” Mavis replied, her voice moderated into deliberately even tones.
Avery lifted her hand in a casual, conciliatory gesture, her delicate fingers wrapped around a heavy bottomed glass. The dim light glinted off two fingers’ worth of liquid amber.
Mavis felt her gut tighten further as the AA chip slipped between her fingers to rattle onto the table.
One step at a time, Mavis, she reminded herself.
A chuckle passed through Avery's too perfect lips as she pulled out a chair to sit.
“Please,” Mavis said, “won't you join me?” The words came out sharper, more resentful than she intended.
“The pleasure is all mine, Mavis.” The blonde woman stared at Mavis, her gaze not unfriendly, but somehow reserved, wary, almost as if she were afraid of how Mavis would react to her presence. The idea was ludicrous. Avery wasn't the weak one; she wasn't the scared one. After all, hadn't it been Avery who'd left?
Mavis eyed her. “What have you been up to?”
Avery lifted the glass to her lips. Mavis followed the movement with her eyes, watching intently as Avery took a long, slow pull. Mavis imagined the feel of the liquor on her tongue, the burn of it down her throat, the comfortable, friendly warmth of it as it settled in the belly. She imagined the taste of it on Avery's full lips, how it would burn slightly against her tongue as she licked the droplets.
Avery set the glass back down with a quiet thunk, interrupting Mavis' thoughts.
“Do you miss it?”
Mavis took a drag from her cigarette. One step at a time.
But she was sitting.
“You know I do.” Her words came out clipped, tight as she held the smoke in her lungs.
“Then why come here? To a bar?”
Mavis looked at Avery, trying for control. Because I miss it all, she thought. She did, like everyone else in her shoes, everyone fighting a vice. She missed it. Every day. The taste of it, the smell of it, the feel of it as it flowed through her. The people, the life. Hell, she even missed the headaches.
But mostly, she missed the obliviousness each drink brought. The silent fog that would dull the harsh corners of reality. She missed that the most.
And Avery knew it.
She'd always known it.
Avery held her gaze, unrelenting.
She blew out the smoke in a thin gray stream.
“You know why.”
“Tell me why.”
Mavis' gaze turned to a glare. God, she was relentless. The smoke from her cigarette rose in the still air between them like a ghost. “No.”
“I want to hear you say it, Mavis.”
Mavis let the silence grow between them. Her body felt tense, hot, agitated, despite the coolness of the room. The sweat clung stubbornly in her pits, above her ass, and in between her tits, and she was acutely aware of how clean and composed the woman next to her seemed. Of the difference between them – the elegant personification of class and the recovering drunken wreck.
She crossed her legs. Uncrossed them. And then reached her free hand across the table and picked up Avery's empty glass.
Avery's eyes glinted hard in the dim light.
Mavis ignored her. Instead, she held the heavy glass up to the light and watched the small drops of amber liquid flow into each other as she twisted and tilted it. The drops formed into a small pool at the bottom–enough for a sip.
So much for steps.
She set the glass down hard and glared at Avery. “Because it is easier to forget with a drink in my hand.”
“What you mean to say,” Avery's voice had lost all warmth, the clipped consonants sounding sharp and harsh in the relative quiet of their little corner, “is it is easier to forget me with a drink in your hand.”
Irritation bloomed in Mavis’ chest, chasing away any foolishly remembered fondness or misplaced longing. Avery had always been like this, always on Mavis for her drinking, always uptight. Always bitching, like it was Mavis who had the problem.
It was true, of course, but Avery did not have to point it out every damned second of every day – especially when she never acknowledged her part, her fault, her fucking perfection and expectations.
“Don't do this, Avery.”
Avery stared at her coolly for a moment, letting the tenseness settle between them.
Mavis could faintly hear the strands of Billie Holiday's sad, lonely voice crooning about being bewitched, bothered, and bewildered playing on the old jukebox. Damn straight, she thought, as she looked at the woman sitting coolly, distant and untouchable, across from her. Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered wasn't the half of it.
She took a drag of her cigarette.
“Don't do what, Mavis?” Avery asked. “Sit at a bar and enjoy a drink with a beautiful woman?”
The table began to shake and Mavis realized she'd started tapping her foot against the base of it, an old habit she'd left behind with the booze.
“Fuck,” she breathed in a gray stream of smoke and resentment, “I need a drink.”
“No, Mavis, you don't.”
“Yes, I do. You had one. Order me a drink. Please.”
“No.” Avery replied, her voice calm, direct, devoid of any pathos, of any emotion.
Mavis took another pull of her cigarette, the cherry glowing bright in the dimness. The smoke burned pleasantly in her lungs before she exhaled in a sharp explosion of breath, “Bitch.”
“Never claimed I was anything but,” Avery replied with a raise of her hand to catch Teddy's eye. He nodded, the gesture brief and distracted as he was swallowed by the crowd of patrons around them.
Mavis picked the glass back up. It was heavy, solid, and she enjoyed the weight of it in her hand – another long lost friend she'd left behind that night.
“Order me a drink.”
“I want a fucking drink.”
“No, you don't.”
Heat rushed to her face as irritation gave way to anger, “Stubborn as ever. Don't tell me what I do and don't want. You don't get to do that anymore. You don't know me now. You don't know shit.”
Avery's own cheeks flushed pink – on her, it was pretty and delicate and feminine and perfect and sober.
“I do know you,” she said, her voice tight. Her blue eyes shone in the dim light, and Mavis wondered for a moment if she might be close to tears. But that was ridiculous; little miss perfection never cried in public. “I do know you, and I am bright enough to know shit when I see it.”
The words burned like a slap. Mavis dropped the glass with a thunk.
“It's been six months since your last drink, Mavis, and you come here,” Avery's voice lowered to a harsh whisper. “To a bar, the bar, your old place, to celebrate – why?”
Mavis lifted the cigarette to her lips, inhaled, exhaled. “For old time's sake.”
“For the old times you used scotch to help you forget? Or are you just trying to forget the empty promises of the last six months?”
“What is it to you, anyways?” Mavis gestured around the room, the cigarette smoke dancing as she moved her hand, “I haven't seen you since my last drink, here in this bar, in our old place. Six months since you walked away from me. From us.”
Avery cocked her eyebrow, noticing the agitated movement.
“I am not the one who walked away, Mavis. You did, months before that night, years even, when you decided it was better to forget life than to live it. I didn't walk away.” She said each word with definitive punctuation as though, Mavis thought watching her, she were trying to convince herself of the truth.
It hadn’t been like that.
It hadn’t. The old familiar voice of denial rang in Mavis’ ears. So what if she had liked to drink? So what if she had liked to forget?
Where was the harm in that?
Mavis’ gaze turned towards the bar, towards the bottles high on the shelf.
Avery didn't understand. She never had.
“You don't know shit,” Mavis said, her own voice harsh. “And you don't know me. Not anymore.” She raised her hand to get Teddy's attention. “I'll order my own fucking drink.”
“Teddy doesn't take orders,” Avery sighed, an exasperated sound. “You know that, Mavis.”
Mavis glared at her former lover. “Shut the hell up.”
Teddy brought them their drinks, politely ignoring the silence that hung between them.
“This round’s on me, loves. One water, one scotch,” he said in his lilting tone, and stepped away, leaving them in their circle of quiet.
Mavis glared at Avery a moment, challenging her to say something, to accuse her of weakness, to be her typical judgmental self. When she remained silent, Mavis grasped the glass holding the honeyed amber liquid.
With an abrupt movement, Avery pushed her chair from the table and stood. Her blue eyes shone too brightly in her pale face. “You're right, Mavis. Maybe I don't know you anymore. Maybe I don't want to know you anymore.”
She turned, taking a step away from the table before glancing over her shoulder. “You know, I thought, before, you had a genuine problem. But then, I saw you for what you were – a pathetic victim using a vice to seclude herself from reality because it was just too hard. But looking at you now…” she shook her head. “There is nothing more pathetic than a drunk playing pretend at sobriety.”
Mavis watched her go, sitting silent, her fingers wrapped around the heavy glass of scotch. Her gaze took in the other patrons, each oblivious to her, each consumed in his or her own alcohol-infused escape. Teddy moved behind the bar. The Dewar's winked at her from behind his shoulders.
Avery was wrong about her. Mavis wasn't pathetic. She wasn't a victim playing pretend. She was just a recovering alcoholic; a damp, sticky, unkempt alcoholic with messy red hair and sweat stains and bitchy ex-girlfriends.
She lifted the glass to her nose, the aroma full of familiar promises, and her mouth watered in anticipation.
Avery was wrong about her.
She took another pull of her cigarette. The smoke felt hollow and empty in her lungs, a poor replacement for the liquid warmth of her old friends.
Setting the glass back down, she released the smoke in a long, silent gray stream.