Prudence

Prudence: Chapter 3f

Rupe downs his martini and plants it dramatically on the bar. He pushes his way onto the dance floor. Joy writhes her hips while her dance partner runs his face down her chest.

‘May I cut in?’ Rupe asks.

Joy’s dance partner towers over Rupe. He is a hulk – not just physically, but in the menace of his presence. This is bully who is accustomed to getting everything he wants. I suspect in the world outside, he is a violent criminal lieutenant, or a ruthless corporate demagogue – they amount to one and the same.

Tinkling with laughter, Joy puts her hands on Rupe’s shoulders.

‘Hey!’ her dance partner says.

Joy casts a dismissive look over her shoulder. ‘Go.’

Rupe is certain he won’t. This man feels Joy is indebted to him. He’s made an investment in her, and there is a commitment in their dance to something more. Simply, he wants to fuck her. Rupe can see it in the wildness of his eyes, the hopefulness of his expression, and even in the tell-tale bulge of his crotch, so it’s almost inexplicable when he lowers his head, and leaves like a scolded child. The reaction so surprises Rupe he does not hear Joy’s question, nor the change in music to something slow and brooding. Joy steps up to him. He is unsure where to put his hands. He rests them just above her hips.

‘I am sorry,’ he says.

Joy reaches out to Rupe, like she plans to wrap her arms around his neck the way one does when dancing closely with a partner. He is reminded of how he danced with his late wife, of the love they shared, and those final dances in the lounge room before she grew too weak to walk, her frame skeletal in his hands.

The memory evaporates as Joy spins and walks from the dance floor.

Rupe is flabbergasted. He chases after her, pushing through people and occasionally jumping, so that he can peer over heads to make sure he’s not losing her. He sees her entering the juncture and pursues. She heads into the Blue Lounge.

He tails after her, and is panting when he finally catches her at the bar. She gives no acknowledgement of his presence, instead surveying the room. An old man sits in a booth in one corner. His eyes catch Rupe. They remind Rupe of his own the night his wife passed: that bleak hopelessness as he fleetingly but seriously contemplated taking his own life so he could be with his wife – or, at the least, stop being without her.

Rupe pushes the memory out and shudders.

‘Perhaps we can get a drink elsewhere,’ he says.

‘When you have just caught me?’ Joy asks.

‘Have I?’

‘Perhaps not,’ Joy says.

‘So you’re still teasing me,’ he asks.

‘Do you think I am?’

‘I think this is all a show for my benefit.’

‘You think highly of yourself.’

‘I think highly of you.’

‘Would you chase me if I stopped?’

‘If you stopped,’ Rupe says, ‘would I have caught you?’

‘You’re too good for this time.’ Joy takes his hand and leads him to the bar. ‘Two Slammers!’ she calls to the bartender, a well-muscled man who wears a name tag that identifies him as Promise. ‘And also an iced water for me.’

‘Slammers?’ Rupe asks. He’s never heard of such things, and curses that he’s shown his ignorance.

‘Have you never had a Tequila Slammer?’

‘No.’

‘It’s good to try something new.’

‘There are many things I would like to try.’

Joy loosen his tie, and undoes the top button of his shirt. ‘What else would you like to try?’

Rupe opens his mouth, certain he’ll have something glib to offer, something charming, but there’s nothing.

Joy laughs. ‘How long are you preparing to chase me?’

‘Until you answer me definitively.’

‘Nothing is definite in life, Rupe. You look like a man who would understand that.’

‘But some things can be made for certain.’

Promise slides out the iced water first, then lays two shot glasses filled with tequila on the bar. Next, he hands each of them a slice of lemon. Rupe stares at his quizzically. Joy holds her hand out to Promise; he sprinkles a line of salt from the base of her thumb to the knuckle of her index finger.

‘Hold out your hand,’ Joy says.

Rupe does so; Promise sprinkles a line of salt across the top.

‘Now watch,’ Joy says.

Joy bites into the lemon, licks the salt off her hand, and downs the shot in one quick swill. She finishes by slamming her glass down with a flourish.

‘Simple,’ she says. ‘Now you.’

Rupe is already grimacing in anticipation when he bites into the lemon. The salt defuses the sourness in his mouth while the tequila chases it all the way into his stomach. He goes to slam his glass down on the bar but misses, over-extends, and must pull himself up abruptly so he doesn’t fall head first into the floor. Joy takes his wrist and steadies his hand, guiding the glass to the bar.

‘That wasn’t so hard, was it?’ she says, sipping from her iced water.

‘No, but hardly with purpose.’

‘Everything may happen for a reason, but we don’t always need a reason.’ Joy gestures to Promise. ‘Set us up again.’ She looks at Rupe. ‘Then I think I might shoot some pool.’