Flavia stands in the juncture, shivering, although her cheeks are flushed and sweat dries on her brow. She doesn’t know why she’s surprised. Of course, this is the way the business may still work. But for some reason, she expected LeBeau would be enamoured with her, and give her a shot for no explicable or deserved reason. Men have always fallen over her. LeBeau didn’t – at least not in the way she hoped. Amber is right. She’s a dreamer.
She heads through the nearest entry and is surrounded by red – it’s the Red Lounge, filled with people, their attention fixed on the pianist. He sways on his stool, face lifted to the ceiling, the top half of him dressed in a tux, his bottom half in jeans and Nike. His fingers blur across his keyboard. Flavia doesn’t recognise the melody, although she thinks it could be Mozart, but anything that sounds classical she automatically classifies as Mozart.
The bar beckons. Flavia takes a stool. The barmaid, Providence, is immediately opposite her.
‘What can I get you?’
‘Vodka and orange,’ Flavia says. She takes a twenty out of her purse and slaps it on the bar.
‘Vodka and orange coming up.’
Providence upends a shot of Smirnoff Vodka into a squat glass, while Flavia cups her hands on the bar. She had been convinced it was a sign to see LeBeau here. If it hadn’t been, then what was it? A tease? The illusion of the future that she can never have?
‘If you don’t mind me saying,’ Providence says, pouring orange juice into the glass, ‘but you have the look of a woman who doesn’t know whether she wants to be alone or with friends.’
‘You can tell that?’
Providence slides the drink across the bar. ‘You can read people after a while.’
Flavia downs her drink in one gulp and grimaces. She takes a chunk of ice into her mouth and sucks on it. Its coolness runs down her throat and into her shoulders. She should find Dante and they should go. She keeps telling herself that. But maybe there is a reason: that is her future. Love, marriage, a family, and the pedestrian day to day duties of working and running a household, always longing for something more – something greater. She is thankful when Providence pours ice into a new glass.
‘Want to double up on the vodka?’ Flavia says.
‘Anything I can help you with?’ Providence pours another shot into the glass.
‘Bartenders really listen to problems? Isn’t that cliché?’
Providence fills the glass with orange juice, slides it across the bar, but holds onto it as Flavia reaches for it.
‘To be honest, I want to gauge how far I’m going to let you take this. People come here, they get lost easily. Then they go from bar to bar, like it’s a pub crawl. You seem together enough. But – no offense, honey – there’s a bad vibe about you right now.’
‘A bad vibe?’ Flavia tries to snatch the glass free, but Providence holds onto it. ‘You a spiritualist or something?’
‘I’m a bartender.’ Providence releases the glass.
Flavia takes a sip. ‘You married? Engaged? Attached?’
‘So am I. We’ve been going out for nearly five years. We’ll probably be engaged soon. He used to be …’
Flavia trails off, lost in her reflection in the mirror that comprises the wall behind the bar. She is unsure how this has become about Dante, but a small part of her mind screams danger. They met a club. They danced. They drank. They went back to his place and had drunken sex. It had seemed so free. But maybe it wasn’t free but simply drunken. That night had prejudiced how she viewed the relationship, and she knows that to examine it too closely now will start to exploit the cracks – and what they contain.
‘What?’ Providence asks. ‘Caring? Loving? Considerate?’
‘Yeah. Now everything’s so familiar.’ Flavia tries to gulp her drink, but it’s too strong. She sips at it instead.
‘I used to like this thing he’d do on my birthday – or the birthday night, to be more exact. He’d ask me what I wanted.’
‘He indulged you.’
‘Totally. Wholly. So I started doing the same for him. On his last birthday, do you know what he wanted?’
Providence shakes her head.
Flavia scowls and now she does gulp her drink, then slams down the glass so hard what’s left inside splashes across the bar. Providence casually grabs a sponge from a sink, wipes down the bar and the underside of the glass, and then puts the glass back down.
‘He said he was tired,’ Flavia went on. ‘Then, in bed, we started talking about sex, about where sex could go. He suggested watching me make love – no, fucking – another man. He tried to joke it off when he realised how shocked I was. But I’m sure he was serious …’ She shakes her head and stares at Providence. ‘Do you know you’re the first person I’ve ever told that story to?’
‘Has he done something tonight to stir up these memories?’
‘I’ve barely seen him. But I wonder sometimes about a man who’d throw out a suggestion like that.’
‘What about yourself?’
‘What about me?’
‘Don’t you have fantasies?’
‘You had that conversation with him. Surely you had something in mind.’
‘Of course.’ Flavia holds her breath. ‘I wanted to do it in a public place.’ She sighs. ‘Not in public, of course. But somewhere there was a risk of getting discovered.’
‘That turns you on?’
‘There’s something about it. And it’s something you share – the risk, the embarrassment, the excitement. But he wants to give me away. Do you think it’s possible to fall out of … well, not to fall out of love, but to fall out of being sure that you’re in love? Or doubting the love you’re feeling is real?’
‘I wouldn’t know. What I do recognise is a woman arguing a decision with herself and what it’ll cost her.’
‘How far would you go for a job?’
‘Getting a job here wasn’t easy. Working my way up to the bar was more trying than I enjoyed. Sometimes, though, you have to let Prudence take you away to where you want.’
‘Are you advising me?’ Flavia finishes what remains of her drink, although it’s barely a mouthful.
‘I wouldn’t do that. You find your own course.’
‘And if you don’t? If you can’t?’
‘Trust your instincts,’ Providence says.
Flavia purses her lips and stares into the mirror.