Hypocrisy is the fuel of life, I thought as I watched my best friend, Juliet, perfectly execute her plan. She giggled, coyly brushing against a group of young men who seemed heartened by her attention. I sat at our table alone, marveling at her ability to con fifteen-dollar drinks out of just about any man with the mere implication of hope. Had it been any other person in the bar I would have watched with disdain, but being my oldest and dearest friend her actions were excused without much of a thought. The knowledge of this hypocrisy touched the corner of my mouth leaving a trace of a smile. Juliet could do nothing so bad that I couldn’t find an excuse for it.
Juliet pointing towards me caught my eye. I shook my head at her slightly hoping to deter the inevitable. I do not like being surrounded by men I do not know, nor do I enjoy being the center of anyone’s attention. I have always been a background sort of a girl, an observer. However, soon she was leading the group of men to our table no regard for what I wanted. This was not how I would have chosen to spend my evening, but I reminded myself, I am not the one in need of cheering up.
Juliet and I were opposites from the first day we met. We always had different ways of coping with life’s speed bumps. When life brought her heartache or disappointment, she sought out immediate gratification, jumping back on that proverbial horse without a moment’s hesitation. I, on the other hand, wanted nothing to do with that horse. When life struck, I preferred to hide within myself until I felt it was safe to come back out… sort of like a turtle. Our current situation was classic Juliet and Olivia; Juliet running blindly, head first into what ever was in front of her, while I lingered back bracing myself for what was coming trying to think of a way to avoid it.
Juliet slid a drink in front of me smiling knowing exactly what I was thinking. I shook my head, “harlot” I said laughing under my breath.
She cocked an eyebrow at me innocently, but her grin widened. This was an inside joke passed between the two of us. Juliet was like the sister I never had. If I was ying she was yang, peanut butter and jelly, so on and so forth. We complemented each other perfectly, one filling in where the other lacked. Our dynamic, while not obvious, worked in a way that went beyond understanding to the outside. We were the best of friends, each other’s greatest supporters, and often provided the voice of reason when the other went too far.
“Olivia, this is John, Craig, Sean…and Don?”
“Ron” not Don said.
“Right, Ron. This is my friend Olivia.”
I smiled congenially making the appropriate greetings. None of these men were really to my taste, or to Juliet's taste for that matter, but she was well beyond the point of caring. I was past the point in my life which meeting men in bars still seemed like a good idea. Juliet didn’t care how she met men so long as she had one waiting for her in the wings at all times. She was a perpetual dater, never going more than two weeks without a boyfriend, and I was a perpetual avoider feeling little inclination to trouble myself with the drama only males can bring into a girl’s life. Don settled in next to me.
“So, Olivia, what do you do for a living?”
I couldn’t suppress my laugh at the predictable question, but kept my smile warm and inviting knowing that I would not soon be able to drag Juliet out of the bar. On nights like this she was in for the long haul and I had to stick around to make sure she was safe. I glanced over at Jules, she was entertaining all of those around her talking with her hands and laughing without reservation. She loved to be the center of attention and she truly shined when she was. Since junior high she was the star and I was the sidekick. I really didn’t mind being Tonto, it gave me a secure position in life. I wondered if this poor fellow reduced to speaking with me drew the short straw.
It struck me, as it did from time to time, exactly how pretty Juliet really was. I had seen her practically everyday for the last 15 years or so, she was just Juliet to me. It was easy to forget how others saw her, but seeing these men look at her with such awe brought her into a new light. Jules had silky smooth straight blond hair that seemed to be lit from within. Her clear blue eyes sparkled with mischief and a sunny smile that radiated from her perfect pink lips. She looked like the girl next door if you happen to live in a postcard for California. My attention drifted back to Don and I figured I might as well make the best of this since I wouldn't be leaving anytime soon. As a rule we never left each other when the potential to make bad decisions was eminent.
“I’m a photographer. What do you do?” I said finally answering his question.
“Oh, I’m in investments.” He said too importantly, too casually and without enough hate for it to be true. I was certain he did something in an investment office but without fail, it would be a trivial position and he was probably new. My judgment was almost solely based on his lack of confidence and his cheap shoes, but I prided myself on being an excellent judge of character so I rarely questioned my original assessments. I had always been able to size people up fairly quickly and accurately, if I do say so myself. It was my gift, not many people could surprise me.
“Yeah… investments… that’s great. Any good stock advice?” I said with a joking smile.
“Well none that I could give you.” He said with a wink. Oh please what a jackass I thought. “You’re a photographer. What do you photograph?”
“A little bit of everything. I have a studio here and I do some freelance work for magazines. You can’t beat the freedom or the travel, but sometimes the clients suck. Mostly though it is fantastic, I am lucky to be able to do something I love every day.”
He gave a hearty, fake, laugh. “Tell me about it. It is difficult having to deal with clients. They never know what they want to do.”
“Some of them know exactly what they want the trouble is convincing them that what they want is completely asinine.”
He laughed again, spare me, “That is exactly right.” Don’t roll your eyes; don’t roll you eyes I repeated in my head until I was safe from the urge. “Have you always lived in St. Louis?” he continued unaware of the mental beating I was giving him.
“Uh yeah. Born and raised here. You?”
“No, I am a transplant.” Imagine that. “I like to think of it as home though.” I am sure you do. I knew this man was trying to play me, but I wasn’t biting.
“St. Louis is a great town.” I agreed truthfully, “It is one of my favorite places.”
He asked a few more mundane questions, but soon enough I was able to steer the conversation back to him. He rambled on and on leaving me free to let my mind wonder far away from him. I often found maintaining conversations with strangers trying. I never really fit in anywhere in my life. People always liked me, but never remembered to invite me. They recognized me, but couldn’t remember my name. I failed at making an impression . My tombstone would probably read “Olivia Martin, that girl you met that one time”.
Perhaps it was my tendency to reside on the outskirts watching interactions rather than engaging. Perhaps it was my biting wit that scared people away. Or perhaps it was that I just wasn’t all that interesting or interested. I loved watching people, finding that moment when their true nature shined through all the facades we humans feel the need to hide behind. However, when speaking with a complete stranger those moments were few and far between. Everyone likes to put their best foot forward, so no one is exactly what they seem upon first meeting them. The first meeting with anyone is little more than one big lie and I have no patience for liars.
Settling in on one of my favorite past times I started to people watch. I watched the patrons of the bar perform their mating rituals with curiosity. The warm ambiance, dim lighting and modern flairs could have fallen off the set of some random sitcom. All of the tables were tall and the crowd was mainly young professionals. It was the sort of place that ninety percent of its patrons would have been happier holding a conversation with a mirror than anyone else. All sparkle, no depth.
I, easily, fell into a game I have played on several similar occasions in my head. In this game I assess each couple in the bar to determine which person was more “into” the relationship than their companion. It is an amusing game that could keep me occupied for several hours. The first couple I chose just entered the bar. A beautiful woman walked in with an aura of self-confidence and authority. She had a look on her face that wasn’t too short of expecting others to bow at her feet and kiss her Jimmy Choo’s. She was followed by a man who looked slightly frazzled and not nearly egotistical enough to be less ‘into” the relationship. I watched them further to see if I had missed something, but their body language only strengthened my conclusion. He was constantly reaching out to touch her and she was pulling away reserving all of her pretty smiles for the people they were meeting. The poor man was so trapped by his own deluded ideas of beauty that he had become a doormat, a victim of his own desire. I felt sorry for the sap.
My eyes searched out couple after couple discerning their inner turmoil to the point it felt as if I knew them. Don was still rambling in my ear something about his job, but he kept the drinks coming and his hands to himself. I listened enough to be able to encourage him to continue in the appropriate spots, but most of my mind was occupied by my game. I was certain he was overstating his job’s importance and the amount of money he earned in a lame attempted to impress me. The effort was wasted. I was impressed neither by money nor power. For that matter beauty either. I was looking for something else, something I couldn’t quite name. I wanted something life altering, game changing. I wanted to be…
I glanced at my watch it read a quarter until one. I caught Juliet’s eye. She seemed to be tiring of the tedious company as well; I made a slight nod towards the door that she returned with an affirmative nod. Our silent conversation went largely unnoticed. I watched for a moment as she tried to politely excuse herself from whichever man she had been talking with most intimately. This man, however, seemed to have grown eight arms over the course of the evening and several drinks. I stopped watching her struggles to excuse myself from Don who was beginning to move uncomfortably close.
“Well, I think my friend and I are going to call it a night. It was nice meeting you. Thank you for the drinks. If I never see you again, have a nice life.” I said in a friendly tone as I extended a hand to him.
“Oh, you’re leaving already. We were just getting to know each other.” He said ignoring my hand and touching a piece of my hair that had fallen over my shoulder. I had to repress the reflex to slap his hand, but I couldn’t keep annoyance off of my face.
“I really have to go.” I said sharply the smile I held melting away.
“Can I have your phone number?”
“I don’t give out my phone number.” I said having no intention of encouraging him.
He mumbled “bitch” underneath his breath as he began to turn away. Oh that irritated me. I shot daggers at the back of his head with my eyes as he stalked away. He couldn’t even begin to expect me to give him my number when he switched the rum in my drink to the generic half way through the evening.
Juliet came over her face breaking into amusement when she saw my expression. “What’d he do to get that look?”
“Nothing,” I mumbled. “Boys get so irritable when you won’t sleep with them.” I shrugged and smiled at her wasting no more time on thinking about Ron, I was over it.
“Well, who’s the harlot now?”
“It’s still you. It is always you.”
She laughed as she linked her arm through mine. We started for the door, but she was stopped by another friend of hers.
Juliet turned back to her friend and I turned towards the door. Looking back I am not sure why I did it, maybe it was the strong desire I felt to leave, maybe it was the draft. Call it God, Ala, a cosmic force, destiny, whatever it was the change was immediate. The very course of my life altered in ways I could have never predicted. The door opened as it had a hundred times throughout the night, but this time a man came through the door that staggered me. He was handsome, but no more so than some of the other patrons who held little interest to me. His face was comprised of classic Roman features that should have been chiseled into marble. His eyes may have been a little close set and his legs were slightly bowed, but those were minor details that were lost to me. All I saw was the intense, unmovable expression his eyes held. He looked around the room as if disgusted by the people and calculating their value.
His eyes were cold, seeming both bored and on edge, but something flickered underneath. A sign of life that kept him from being just a shark bored of preying on the same schools of fish. When his eyes made contact with mine the air whooshed from my lungs as if I had been punched. I saw a slight smirk twitch on his stoic face then it was gone before I could be sure it was ever there. His graceful movements as he walked exuded danger and intrigue. Hell, I was practically ready to swoon. Had I been able to look away I most certainly would have seen other women gawking, but I was not. He seemed to hold my gaze against my will while the room faded into nothingness.
The music and noise softened around me, other people blurred into the background. I don’t know how long our eyes were locked, or if they ever were. It could have been a second, a minute, twenty, or it could have just been in my head. During that moment, time ceased to exist. It seemed eternal and we were the center of everything. I believed for an instant that he started coming towards me, his face never surrendering its stoic mask. I had the simultaneous urge to back away and to close the distance between us leaving me stranded where I stood. I felt a hand on my shoulder before I heard a voice from somewhere that seemed very far away “Are you ready, Livi?”
I forced myself to break the contact. Suddenly everything was as it ever was. I quickly glanced back, but the man was gone. My heart beating wildly in my chest felt an immediate sense of relief and loss. I wondered if I had imagined that scene, after the fact it all seemed horribly unreal and not like me at all.
“Olivia, are you alright?” This time Juliet sounded concerned at my lack of response.
“Yeah….”I was having problems focusing on her. My eyes impatiently scanned the room for him “Did you see that man?” I asked distractedly.
“No. Don’t talk to me about men. I never thought I was going to get away from Sean. To look at him he appears perfectly normal who would have ever guessed he was an octopus.”
I forced my attention to solely focus on Jules “Yes, but do you feel better that is the important thing.”
She considered for a moment then smiled. “I do feel a bit better. It is nice to be reminded that you are still desirable.”
“Please! Like you ever had a doubt.” Juliet had more self-confidence than any one person I had ever met.
“True...but the confirmation is still nice.”
“Your daily affirmations are no longer working for you?” I asked dryly. We walked out of the bar laughing arm in arm. I casually looked around trying to spot him again, but to no avail. We began our walk back to our apartment building laughing about Sean the octopus with our arms linked together. We only had about ten blocks to walk. Not too bad, it was in a fairly nice area and it was a pleasant evening. As we got closer to the building I could see a more serious look take over Juliet’s face.
“Joe’s an asshole, Jules.”
“No he isn’t. He was nice. I think the problem was me not him.” She said thoughtfully.
It was unlike her to take the blame for well… anything. “Why do you think that?” I asked concerned.
“I don’t know. He was really nice, but I just wasn’t into it. I kept pulling away from him. I don’t blame him for leaving me. I was… unavailable at best.”
“That doesn’t sound like you.” I had my doubts about the truth in this. I was sure she had missed something.
“I know. It sounds like you. We have been around each other too long you are starting to rub off on me.” She gave me a half-hearted shrug before she forced a smile onto her face “Oh well. There is always the next one.”
“Absolutely! Until there isn’t.” I wasn’t letting her off the hook that easily.
“Until there isn’t.” she echoed glumly, then seemed to rebound a moment later. “Who needs men to stay around? We have each other.” Juliet declared squeezing my arm.
“I don’t know. You’re sort of a loser.” I gave her a toothy, eyes closed grin. “Seriously though, he wasn’t right for you. You could do so much better than him.”
“Hey, so what was up with that guy you were talking about? I don’t know how I could have missed him, You seemed… shaken.”
“Not stirred?” I joked trying to buy some time just mentioning him made my heart thump wildly.
“Your deflection doesn’t work with me, Liv. I know all of your tricks of avoidance.”
“I don’t know. He was gorgeous for sure, but there was something I can’t describe. We made eye contact and I felt like I was going to have a heart attack then he was gone. He seemed… different. Is that strange?”
“Love at first sight.” She said hopefully. Jules and my mother seemed to be in a conspiracy to marry me off and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why, I was content.
“More like arrhythmia. How long have you known me? When have I ever believed in that nonsense? I don’t know what it was… maybe I drank too much tonight. Undoubtedly he is either stupid, an asshole, or completely fake. He was way too pretty to be anything else. Anyway he was probably looking for his perfect, model girlfriend, living his TV show life”
Jules shook her head with an expression that clearly said ‘what on earth am I going to do with you?’ “Ah, it’s wonder your nickname was never sunshine.”
“I am not going to start deluding myself about people. Most people that perfect are devoid of personality. It is God’s way of evening out the playing field. It is not my fault that is just the way it is, Jules. The natural order.”
“You are so full of shit. What it must be like to be in your mind for only moment.” She laughed “Have you looked in the mirror lately, you are hardly a plain Jane and you are not devoid of personality. If anything you have too much carefully hidden under many layers of quiet sarcasm, smiles, and feelings of superiority.”
“Trust me, I was no where near his league. They wouldn’t even let me in the stadium. I have photographed models who weren’t even in his ballpark. As for my mind it lives in reality, you should come visit some time.” I said grinning. I wasn’t sure why, but I didn’t want to talk about the man with Juliet. I felt possessive of the memory of him which wasn’t like me where Jules was concerned. That knowledge didn’t change the fact that for right now the memory of him was just mine and I wanted it to stay that way. I knew I would never see him again, but I felt deep inside that he belonged to me…even if it was only the memory of him.
I pulled out my keys letting us into the building.
“Stairs or elevator?” Juliet asked.
I looked at the unforgiving shoes I was wearing. “Elevator.” The stairs and walking everywhere was the best exercise. We found that gym memberships were wasted because we never went, but living on the ninth floor the flights of stairs could be mixed into our daily life with little sacrifice.
Juliet and I had been roommates since college, but once we were settled into our careers and the next door apartment came up for lease Juliet got it. That way we were still close to one another, but we also had our space. Even the best of friends fight when they have no time apart. We have keys to each other’s homes and often would come and go as freely as if it were our own. There was openness between us that I shared with no other.
After Juliet moved out I decorated my apartment all in white and mahogany. The walls are covered with photographs, some I had taken, some by other photographers I admire. I always kept fresh white flowers on the sofa table, preferring lilies to anything else. Juliet’s former bedroom became an office where I had several book shelves installed and I purchased a large antique desk. I always felt at peace here, this was my home, my own perfect sanctuary.
I opened the window in my bedroom and snuggled underneath the down comforter in my soft bed. My mind cleared and soon I was drifting peacefully to sleep.