“Are you serious?” Mia asked coldly, deflecting the crude remark that was apparently supposed to serve as a drunken proposition.
As the suited man slunk away, temporarily chastised, she tucked a stray curl of blonde hair behind her ear and focused on rinsing out the cocktail shaker. Since she was a child she had always found washing up a therapeutic activity, a series of basic gestures requiring little conscious thought which decoupled her mind from the present, combined with the satisfaction of a clean product at the end. Tonight, though, she was just attacking seeds with a scouring pad. Raoul, noting her tension, briefly placed a large, dark hand supportively on her shoulder.
Working in a bar — ‘Havana’, with its largely nominal Cuban theme — comments such as the suit’s were hardly uncommon but, she explained, “Tonight they’re just unreal.”
“Now, little one,” Raoul began, returning to the drink he was preparing. She had found the label irritatingly condescending when she began working with her colleague of a mixed African heritage that he carefully avoided specifying, but she soon realised that, given his considerable size, he both could and did use it for a vast number of people who rarely objected. His amiable, booming voice only made it more fitting.
“They are drunk,” he continued, “so don’t let it bother you none. But also,” he paused, garnishing a cream-topped cocktail with a maraschino cherry, his thick fingers working with deceptive delicacy, “don’t let that stop you from telling them what is what.”
“I know,” she said, as frustrated with her own reaction as with tonight’s corporate crowd, “I know.”
“You are missing her.”
It was a statement rather than a question and she let it hang in the air. It was true, especially on nights like this. She would catch herself glancing over at the stool at the end of the bar and picturing Caroline there, sipping a Sazerac as she read from a book and dipped in and out of the conversation behind the bar. She would detect Mia’s mood, lightly touching her hand, a slight smile as she gazed softly, wordlessly into her eyes for a moment through those black-rimmed glasses. Mia and Raoul were close but it was not that. Nothing was as instantly calming as that. She thought of it as the difference between being cared about and being cared for. Caroline made it seem as though, in that instant, it was her only reason for being.
Some mistakes can be fixed.
She had liked the certainty of knowing how Caroline felt about her, because it gave her control over the relationship. Given her past experiences, that control was appealing, necessary even. Mia would pull back before they crossed any line, but knew she could reel Caroline in again when she started to recoil. She felt like a director, ensuring her cast would build enough to keep the audience enthralled but without reaching the climax that would mark the end of the scene.
Eventually though, growing concerned by the attention that their time together and tactile interaction were drawing, destabilising her sense of control, Mia had confronted the situation. And she had lied to Caroline.
Some mistakes cannot be fixed.
Caroline had continued to drink at the bar for a while afterwards. Her demeanour was relaxed but she always seemed slightly subdued whenever they spoke, as a if a light had gone out somewhere inside. Eventually, one innocuous Tuesday evening, she brought a couple of friends to the bar and they drank and chatted at a table. When her friends left, she told Mia that she was leaving and would not be around for a while. That was the last time Mia had seen her. She had assumed Caroline meant a few weeks. But those weeks turned into a month and now, nine months later, none of the staff had any idea where she was. By the time someone tried it, her number had been disconnected.
Mia looked over at the imaginary apparition sitting on the stool, intrigued by the varying levels of precision in her memory: all the detail was in the eyes, lips and fingers as the spectre sipped her cold, brown drink. She glanced up at Mia and then away.
I am not giving up, Mia told herself, I am just protecting my sanity.
She closed her eyes. When she opened them again, the stool was empty.