He walked into the bar with a girl at his side. Pretty enough, mid-twenties. Long dark wavy hair parted down the middle, slim build, dressed politely. A small smile, closed lips painted dark pink, eyes wide. Her hand on his arm, unacknowledged, removed after a moment. A tall and broad bear of a man, light jacket over a black shirt, dark jeans and big tan shoes. He carried a copy of the book he would read from — his own — a novel.
Her shoulders, rigid, too far back, betrayed her uncertainty. He seemed like the kind of man who believed he owned the air we breathed, and she didn’t seem comfortable occupying the space beside him. Was she the timid, doting girlfriend? Or the last minute invitation, clearly regretted? They didn’t order drinks.
Standing up front, the room darkened. The audience sat clustered before him, the microphone small in his hand. He spoke, a deep molasses drawl from Alabama or Tennessee. His words were alive but sleepy, delivered deliberately and slowly. The older couple next to me glanced at each other, nodding: he was good. The girl looked on from her seat to the side, that small smile persisting.
Later, as a poet read her work, his gaze was intense. Sitting next to the girl, he absorbed, or appeared to absorb, every syllable. During the third poem, the girl sneezed. He strained his face, leaned slightly closer in the direction of the poet. “Bless you,” I whispered on the other side of the room.
I saw him notice me as she was leaving. He didn’t walk her outside. My expression must have dispatched my intended message because after she was gone, he came over to where I stood, alone. Suddenly, he was in my space. I looked up to his tawny eyes, his chest just inches from me, and I breathed in the smell of cigars and citrus. I held my own in the silence, daring him to speak first. I understood his type: at once hooked on adoration and bored by it. I knew how to play my cards.
“You enjoy my reading?”
“My friend bailed.”
I shook my head, no.
“Good,” he said. We drank red wine and he told me about a short story he once wrote about meeting a girl in a bar.
“So what are you doing in Boston?” I asked.
“A residency.” He pulled out his phone and scanned his notifications. “For writers.”
“I think you want to kiss me,” he said as our cab drove through the night, past red neon signs ‘LOTTERY’ and ‘OPEN 24 HOURS’ and empty office buildings, windows dimly glowing from within.
“Such presumption,” I replied.
Displeasure immediately surfaced on his face, so I leaned towards him. His breath was faintly astringent, and he kissed me forcefully, teeth crashing. He pawed at my shirt and I tried to recover the desire I felt an hour ago.
His apartment was large and bare and smelled of nothing. A framed poster from a play leaned against a white wall, a distressed wooden bookcase was under-filled. He walked ahead of me to his desk and pushed his laptop lid closed.
“Shall we go straight to the bedroom?” As his words waited between us, he pursed his lips and moved his hand to his neck, dragging it slowly across his skin. Unease twisted in me and I fought the pull to soothe his vulnerability. He exhaled dramatically. My urge to protect his feelings stilled any impulse I had to follow my own. I nodded. As he undressed, I pretended not to see the sweat stains under his arms and silently composed the text I would send to decline a further date.
And in the early hours, as I tiptoed out while he slept, clutching my bag and jacket, it occurred to me that if he never texts me, my unsaid no will forever remain a yes to him. I winced, squeezing my eyes almost closed, and walked out into the street, the sky pink above the buildings in the distance.
Jo Varnish moved from her native England at age 24 and now lives in Maplewood, New Jersey. A freelance writer and MFA student, Jo’s poetry and short stories have recently been published in The Bangalore Review, Cathexis Northwest Press and Funny Pearls. Last year, Jo was a writer in residence at L’Atelier Writers in France. Currently, she is working on her novel, poetry and short stories, and can be found on Twitter @jovarnish1.