The restaurant is small and cosy, the décor dull earth tones – the walls brown, the carpet tan, the tablecloths beige. Candelabras – actual antique crystal candelabras with candles – hang from the ceiling, casting flickering shadows across the floor. The mood is subdued, with even the music from the lounges muffled, as the restaurant is mostly soundproofed.
There are not many here presently – there rarely are. Although the restaurant is (or can be) first class with both the menu and the service, the few people who come here want something fast and quick.
The exceptions are the romances, couples staring lovingly into one another’s eyes, investing in the dream of love, union, and happy-ever-afters. Occasionally, there have been proposals. I wonder how those marriages are going now. I wish I knew. In my limited understanding of the world outside, I can only imagine relationships bonded here would go nowhere out there.
Amber and Gabriella sit at a table for two in the corner, halfway through Long Island Iced Teas. There’s a bowl of nachos between them. Each pluck out a nacho, turn it over for a perfunctory examination, then put it in their mouths. They realise they’ve mirrored one another and laugh.
‘I’ve played hundreds of games of pool here,’ Gabriella says. ‘I mean, I come here just to play. Especially with him. With Savage. There’s something about him. But I’ve never gotten the privilege you got tonight.’
‘Privilege?’ Amber stops in the act of eating a chip.
‘Come on! You didn’t enjoy it?’
Amber pops the chip into her mouth, and smiles guiltily.
A waiter, Primo, approaches – a typical waiter here with model features, the bronzed complexion, and hours spent in the gym moulding a hard and sculpted physique. His hair has been shaved on the sides, the top elongating into a short ponytail.
‘Is everything to your satisfaction, ladies?’ he asks with an inclination of his head. ‘Can I get you anything else?’
Gabriella holds up her Long Island Iced Tea.
‘Two more of these, please,’ she says.
‘I shouldn’t,’ Amber says.
Primo, who was about to go, stops.
‘Another’s one not going to hurt,’ Gabriella says.
Amber picks up her existing drink. She’s never had one before. There’s no real taste of alcohol, although Gabriella has told her it contains every white spirit. But it tastes more like a strong apple juice. She gulps down what’s left.
‘Sure,’ she says.
Primo nods and leaves.
‘So,’ Gabriella says, and then in a rush, ‘what did it feel like?’
Amber’s face is afire. She finishes her drink, but it only exacerbates the heat of her skin.
‘It was just a little kiss,’ she says, trying to downplay it not for Gabriella’s benefit, but her own.
‘They would’ve had to pull me off that thing, let me tell you!’ Gabriella says. ‘I would’ve been attached to it like it was life support.’
Amber laughs. ‘Are you married? Do you have a boyfriend?’
‘Been married ten years.’
‘Then how could you say that?’ Amber asks. ‘What about your family?’
‘I’m sure, in the world, there are great families. Love, warmth, closeness.’
‘Yours isn’t …? Sorry, this is personal.’
Gabriella reaches across the table and pats her hand. ‘It’s okay. My marriage isn’t horrible. He doesn’t mistreat me. Doesn’t abuse me. We don’t argue any more than most couples. But do you know what I’ve realised?’
Primo returns with two Long Island Iced Teas on a tray. Amber wonders how they were mixed so quickly. She does not know how well the bar-staff read the clientele, how they anticipate their desires. It’s part of the training.
Primo puts a glass down on the table in front of each of them. ‘There you are, ladies,’ he says.
‘Thank you,’ Amber says.
She picks up her empty glass and goes to put it on the tray but misjudges, striking the edge of the tray with the bottom of the glass. Primo catches the tray in time.
‘No harm done,’ Primo says, taking the glass from her. He puts it on the tray. Gabriella finishes hers and hands it to him. He puts it on the tray also. ‘Enjoy,’ he says, leaving them.
‘What was I saying?’ Gabriella asks.
‘What you realised …’
‘That’s right! Sometimes, when you’re young, you fall in love, but you don’t really know what love is. You fall into that cycle that a lot of young people do – meet somebody you get involved with; you think you’ve fallen in love because you don’t know any better; because you think you’re in love, you get engaged. Then you get married. Buy a house. Get a mortgage. Have some kids. Maybe take out an investment. But as this goes on, do you know what you discover?’
Amber shakes her head.
‘If you were given a couple of years with your partner in marriage-like circumstances, you’d discover that while you have a very deep affection for them, it’s probably not love – not the sort that means you’re passionate about your partner, that you’re still devoted to them even when you see them at their most unattractive day after day, and definitely not the sort that should be forever.’
‘You want a fairy tale love.’
‘That’s what we all want, isn’t it? The fairy tale? Nobody wants the reality – a partner who won’t take the bins out, drinks too much, farts in bed, gets pudgy, needs to be hassled to do homework with the kids, stays too involved with his sports and friends and, well, that list goes on. I’m sure he has his own list of problems with me. Does anybody want that? Do you want that?’
‘I guess not.’
‘It’s like a job you tolerate.’ Gabriella smirks. ‘You know that saying, “Love what you do, and you’ll never work a day in your life”?’
Amber doesn’t, but can see the romance behind the saying.
‘That should be relationships, too. I don’t mean it needs to be romantic dinners and roses every day, your partner always being nothing but Prince Charming. That’s unrealistic. But you should love your partner in a way that you always come back to them – always want to come back to them, rather than doing it out of habit.’
Amber thinks about Quinn, and wants to believe what they have is genuine and that they’ll always come back to one another although, ironically, she has no idea where Quinn is now, and hasn’t thought about him since before the pool game. She recalls what she did with Savage. The guilt that fills her is hot and nauseating.
She sees cracks in her relationship. They’ve always been there. But now she truly sees them. Quinn is needy. He’s had little ambition since the knee injury ended his basketball prospects. He’s inexperienced in the world and life – not that she’s much better. Is that what attracted them to one another? A likeness? A need to support one another because of feelings of inadequacy?
They’re not like Holly or Marcus, who are so forward and sure of themselves, taking on the world with a gusto that borders into foolhardiness; or Flavia, whose ambition can override everything else in her life; or even Dante, who might be insecure, but is still trying to get somewhere.
‘I’ve got friends who can’t wait to get out of the house,’ Gabriella goes on, ‘who do nothing but complain about their partners. I think they’re always just that one drink, or even just a single sweet word away from cheating. I shouldn’t moralise because, well, you know, security would’ve had to drag me off Savage. I think I would’ve just let go.’
‘And how would you have faced your husband in the morning?’
Gabriella purses her lips. ‘With a smile and me telling myself everything is okay.’
‘Even if it isn’t?’
‘That’s marriage,’ Gabriella says.
* * *
Quinn doesn’t know what his plan is. His outburst at Mr Hermes was impulsiveness. That was it. It felt good at the time, but now that the anger has had time to cool, Quinn doesn’t know what exists beyond that. He stumbles from the Blue Lounge and into the juncture. He has no idea how he can collect on Mr Hermes’s temptation, or whether he should.
He sees himself lurching out into the night, and never turning back. What would Amber think? Would she miss him? Would she truly miss him? Or would she find some relief in his departure? Quinn knows he’s being melodramatic. He has to work out a plan – something real.
Emerging into the juncture is Savage, dressed now in jeans and a t-shirt, his topknot of hair bouncing behind him. It could be coincidence or fate. Quinn opts for the latter. They are all actors following cues. Mr Hermes offered him the temptation. Now here is Savage. It all fits.
Quinn envies him and hates him. Savage is everything Quinn believes he is not: composed, well-built, good looking. Quinn is sure he’d kill with the ladies. Of course he would. It would all come so easily to him. That’s just how some people are built.
And how others aren’t.
Now the inferiority bubbles into something raw and scathes Quinn. He follows Savage into the Yellow Lounge. The mustard décor is an affront to Quinn’s eyes. He is unsure why they would use this colour. He can only think of bile. Perhaps that’s why they keep it so dim in here – to dull the garishness.
He takes a stool by Savage at the bar, who’s just gotten a beer in a tall glass from the bartender. The bartender, an Amazon of a woman with her dreadlocks drawn back into a tail, turns to Quinn. Quinn sees that her name tag identifies her as ‘Prosper.’
‘Just a Corona, thanks,’ Quinn says. ‘With a lime.’
‘Corona with a lime coming up,’ Prosper says.
‘No. Make it a lemon.’
‘Ooh,’ she says, ‘living dangerously.’
Quinn is irked he’s being mocked. It’s a little thing, but that’s this night: a highlight of what he sees as a bundle of shortcomings that sums up his life. If he hadn’t injured his knee, things might’ve been different: a professional career in basketball, money, opportunities, fans, adulation – not that he would’ve needed the latter. Amber is more than enough. And he would’ve been worthy of her. There’d be none of this questioning. He wouldn’t be sitting here contemplating what he’s about to do.
As if reading his unease, Prosper offers him a smile so big and assuring, it flusters him. He spins away from her, and sees Savage sipping from his beer. Quinn doesn’t know how to open. Savage is just as likely to punch him in the nose. Quinn wouldn’t blame him if he did. In fact, Quinn makes a vow to himself: if that’s Savage’s response, Quinn will take that as a sign, walk out of here, and deal with the consequences.
‘Saw your show,’ Quinn says.
‘Sorry?’ Savage says.
Prosper places a Corona in front of Quinn. He slides a twenty across to her. ‘Keep the change,’ he tells her.
‘Thank you.’ She leaves them.
‘Your show,’ Quinn says. ‘Just before. I saw it.’
‘Hope you enjoyed it,’ Savage says.
‘I saw you with my girlfriend.’
Savage rises from his stool. His shoulders shoot up, his muscly arms coiled for a counterattack. Quinn almost laughs. Like Savage should be afraid of him. But this is probably a reaction he’s had to deal with a time or two – the jealous partner.
‘She was the one at the end,’ Quinn says, forcing himself to stare into his Corona, trying to be as relaxed as possible. ‘It’s okay. I’m not angry.’
‘You sure?’ Savage says.
‘I’ve got a proposition for you. Sit down.’
Savage doesn’t move. Quinn can see he’s considering whether to leave or not. Right then, Quinn just wants to smash his Corona over Savage’s head. Savage owes him after the way he handled Amber. The least he could offer is a bit of his time.
Savage surveys Quinn, as if determining what sort of threat he might be, and if he does become a threat, how he could be handled. Quinn feels ill-equipped under the scrutiny. He has height. His basketballer’s physique has melted into an everyday physique. He still has his core strength, but Savage moves with the purposefulness of somebody who has either studied some fighting discipline, or fought so much he knows how to handle himself.
‘You know, girls come to my show,’ he says, sitting back on his stool. ‘I don’t ask them. They come. And I try to give a good show – the best show in Prudence. It’s nothing personal. It’s work for me – money to pay bills and live my life.’
‘I want you to make it personal.’
‘I want you to fuck my girlfriend.’
Quinn expects incredulity. He doesn’t get it. Surprisingly to Quinn, but unsurprisingly to myself, Savage has heard this proposition often: men wanting to watch him fuck their partners, or interested in a threesome or foursome, or women wanting to share him, or men hoping he might be bi – well, there have been all sorts of propositions. Savage has heard them so often, he has grown desensitized to them.
Again, he sizes Quinn up. Quinn is not like others. He looks wholesome, a boy in a man’s body uncomfortable with moving around in a hectic and sometimes perverse world. And he’s nervous. This is new to Savage. Quinn’s nervousness doesn’t come from a lack of bravado, as it might from others; it comes from some quiet, desperate place swirling with fear. Lust does not motivate him. It’s something else, a place touched by darkness.
‘You don’t seem the type,’ Savage says.
‘You’d be wrong.’ Quinn gulps from his Corona. ‘And I’m sure she’d like it.’
He doesn’t know why he says this. He thinks possibly he’s baiting Savage, as if expecting Savage will say, No! I’m sure she loves you! That’ll put everything in context then. It’ll make everything all right. And it’ll render meaningless what he saw earlier when Amber had her legs wrapped around Savage.
‘Oh, of that there’s no doubt,’ Savage says.
Quinn’s hands tighten around his Corona. ‘You do this, and you do it tonight, I’ll give you five thousand dollars.’
The offer of money isn’t new either. What’s unusual for Savage is that judging by Quinn’s blazer and his ill-fitting pants, he doesn’t have that sort of money to spend. But he is earnest. That comes across. Whatever’s going on here, Quinn will follow through. Savage had thought Quinn was full of fear. It’s not. It’s terror. Quinn is terrified of what comes next.
‘But it must be done,’ he says. ‘All the way. What do you say?’
Savage gets up from his stool, leans against the bar, and finishes his beer. ‘Where is she?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘That doesn’t help.’
‘It’s a big place. We got separated.’
‘Women usually get a drink after my show. She’s probably in one of the bars. I’ll find her.’
‘Where’re you going to do it?’ Quinn holds up his hand. ‘No, wait, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know anything.’
‘Nothing? Don’t you want proof?’
‘How about I bring you her panties?’
‘You’d recognise them, wouldn’t you?’
Savage has been sure the talk of proof would shake Quinn’s convictions. He’d understand the reality of the transaction. The thought of bringing his partner’s panties to him would truly make this real for him.
And Savage can see that in Quinn’s wild eyes that is.
But he remains unmoved.
‘Look,’ he says, ‘I just want to know that it’s … done.’
Savage grins. ‘Don’t worry. She will be,’ he says.