“No problem. Let me know if you need anything.”
“Actually, you want to get something for Stella? Just put it on my bill.” I dropped my debit card on the bar so we could settle up well before I had to jet out again.
“You sure?” He raised his eyebrows, as if an extra ten bucks wasn’t worth spending on someone as hopeless as Stella.
“I’m sure.” My voice was harder than it had been before.
He walked over and tossed her a paper menu.
“Pick something out here, sweetheart. Your little friend over there’s buying you lunch again. What’ll it be?”
“Oh, honey. You don’t have to do that. You save your money.” She waved her hand at me, almost knocking it into her half-empty beer.
“I don’t mind.”
She gave me a sad smile. The kind that told me she wished she could refuse, or turn the tables and buy my lunch instead. But who knew when she’d last had a full, decent meal? She drank away any money she had. I could tell because she was rail-thin. The old clothes she wore barely stayed on her. She chose booze over food, every time. That’s why people like Jerry shook their head.
He took her order and hollered into the back again.
I’d eaten all my chicken already and was taking my time with my fries now. I was at the point in my moderate hangover where food was the cure. I needed something in my stomach to ward off the rest of the day’s nausea. I checked my watch. Plenty of time still. I wasn’t like the rest of the cattle who stood in line for a half hour only to have cafeteria-style lunch stuffed next to a complete stranger. The long walk to Delaney’s was always worth it.
I reached into my bag for my notebook. The bag was one of those enormously impractical designer bags, filled with God knew what s**t I definitely didn’t need to be hauling around with me every day. I finally found it and opened to an empty sheet. I clicked my pen a few times and set the tip to the page.
I wrote about Stella, about all the things I thought about her. Things I imagined, having never really known her beyond this vantage at the other end of the bar. In a way, I was afraid I already knew her. I wrote a page and then turned it, flipping back and forth between the two, grabbing words until a poem formed. Then I rewrote it again, whittling it down further.
a damp, leafless tree
arms branch across her face
a barren, lifeless mother
her soul prays for spring
Something about the jagged sparsity of a poem settled me. Wabi-sabi or the minimalist imperfection of it, or maybe the simple knowledge that no one would understand it but me. I was fine with that, preferred it actually. I’d come to terms with the fact that most people I met would never really know me.
I checked my watch again. Time to go. I paid Jerry and bundled up. I waved goodbye to Stella on my way out, but she didn’t see me.
I lit a cigarette before stepping back into the cold. Menthols. My stomach protested again when I took a drag. Too many cigarettes last night. I really should quit. Despite that, I was warm now, a little loose, and ready to face the last half of the day. Hump day. Two more days. Two more days and then what? Maybe I’d finally get my s**t together and go the gym or something. We’ll see how it goes, I thought.
Lost in my fitness fantasy and the promise of a slightly smaller a*s, I barely noticed the sound of my name. Seemed like I wasn’t in range of being recognized yet. I had a little way to go.
I stopped short and looked up. A pretty girl with chocolate brown hair falling loose around her face stood before me. Her piercing blue eyes met mine.
“Olivia. Hey. How are you?”
“Good.” Her smile tensed with the short reply.
We didn’t do the hugging thing, which is weird to do with people you haven’t seen in forever, but it was weirder now that we weren’t doing it. Like we had a good reason to not do that. I was certain she had her reasons.
“I didn’t realize you lived here,” she said, breaking the awkward silence.
“Yeah, I’ve been here since graduation. Working on Wall Street as an analyst.” I stamped out my cigarette, suddenly embarrassed by it. I wasn’t sure why. Not like I needed to impress her, but a part of me wanted her to know how together my life was now. Beyond that and the whiskey that likely lingered on my breath, I looked good. Expensive suit, expensive coat, stupidly expensive shoes. I tucked my hair—stylishly cut in meticulously straightened layers that fell down my back—behind my ear.
“How about you?”
“Just moved here actually. Still finding my way around. Thought I’d take a spin through Manhattan. I have a couple friends who live nearby.”