“So, are you going to tell me what you do now?”
We’ve been chatting off and on for the past few minutes about nothing in particular: traffic, the weather, how much we hate LAX. He finally mentions having to travel a lot for his job, and I take the opportunity to ask him about it.
James shrugs modestly. “It’s not that cool. I work for this company called Athlead.”
“As in ‘athlete?’”
He nods. “Yeah, it’s a sports marketing agency.”
“That sounds pretty cool to me,” I say.
“Well, it is,” he admits with a smile, “But it’s not like I just talk sports all day, you know?” He pauses for a minute. “You heard of the Lakers?”
I pretend to think. “Yeah, I think they’ve made the news once or twice.”
“The local news,” he adds, playing along with a brief smile. “Um, I had a meeting with them earlier this morning. And it was going well at first; we had this deal in the works with some of the players, and we were just going to tie up some loose ends, answer some questions for the managers. But, um, I kind of misinterpreted their concerns and made things worse, and before I knew it, I was on the phone with my supervisor telling him I had blown it. He was on the phone with the team owner for the rest of the morning. And then I called him just now and he told me he couldn’t fix things.” He lets out a heavy but not totally unpleasant sigh and cranes his neck into the kitchen area of the bar. “Does this place have mozzarella sticks?”
I smile at his diversion, relating all too well. I’m also quite surprised that he shared this much with me, and I don’t want to press him any further. “Yeah, but the wings are better.” He gives me an amused look. “I come here a lot.”
“I guess you do,” he says. “You want anything?”
Why did he ask me that?
“Um… I can get it,” I reply. I can feel my cheeks growing warm.
His brow furrows, and then his eyes widen in understanding. “Oh, I didn’t mean… I know you can,” he mumbles, looking embarrassed.
Oh gosh, he was honestly just being nice.
“Sorry,” I say quickly, shaking my head as though to undo my defensive words. “I wasn’t trying to… I’ll take some wings,” I say, giving him a smile that I hope is reassuring.
It must be because he smiles back and asks Creed for a double order of wings. I take the opportunity to duck into the restroom and take a few deep breaths. And, okay, make use of the mirrors in there.
When I come back, our food has already arrived. “Why is there a drumstick with our wings?” James asks suspiciously.
I slide back onto the barstool and grab one of the paper napkins. “Oh, yeah, Creed just runs across the street to KFC and resells the wings. Sometimes a different piece of chicken makes its way in.”
“And yet you suggested the wings?”
“Hey, I don’t know how Creed makes any of the other things on his menu. Do you want to order the artichoke dip and find out?”
“Okay, fair point,” he says, evidently having caught on to the eccentricity of our bartender.
We slip back into easy conversation as we nibble on eleven herbs and spices and sip on more beer, talking about our time in college, where we’ve traveled, our favorite movies. Music comes up at one point, and James gushes about Duran Duran and Bon Jovi like he’s been waiting all day for this opportunity. I just nod along (because it’s not like I haven’t heard of these artists) until he asks me what I like and I have to tell him the truth.
“I’m actually not that into music,” I admit. “The only time I really listen to music on purpose is when I work out. And I usually just pick a station and go with it.”
I shake my head. “Nope.”
“Wow. Okay,” he says, tossing a wing bone onto his plate for dramatic effect. “Here I was, thinking that we could be friends—”
I burst into giggles, hoping that he’ll think it’s because he’s funny and I’m buzzed, and not because he said “we” and “friends” in the same sentence.
James grins amusedly and continues. “But if you’re not into music, I don’t know what we’re going to talk about.”
“We seem to be doing okay, though.” The sentence slips out of my mouth before I can think twice. I try to play it off with a confident little smirk even though that is probably the opposite of what I should be doing.
There’s a beat of hesitancy, just enough for me to second-guess myself, before he says, “I guess,” and rolls his eyes dramatically.
We look at each other and let out soft, almost identical chuckles. I try to think of a response, but he talks again before I can say anything.
“There was this really old-timey bar in Philly that I used to go to a lot,” he muses thoughtfully. “It was one of those places where you went to get a drink, but you stayed for the music, you know? They had a live piano and jazz singers, and they seemed to have an endless supply of new bands. I don’t know how they did it.”
“That sounds really cool,” I say honestly.
His lips quirk up in a reminiscent smile. “They even had a working jukebox, which I always thought was funny. More bars should have one of those.”
“I’m actually surprised that Creed doesn’t have one, now that you mention it.”
“Have what?” Creed says, having made his way to our side of the bar as he cleans the countertop.
“Oh, no I have one. It’s old, but it works.” Creed gestures behind us and, sure enough, there’s a little jukebox set up against the back wall. I’m not sure why I’ve never noticed it, but I guess I’ve never ventured to that part of the bar before.
I turn around in my seat and James is already browsing through songs. “Is there a reason you only have Grass Roots songs on here?” he asks Creed with an incredulous grin.
“I was a member,” Creed says as though he’s telling us that it’s sunny outside today.
James raises his eyebrows briefly, and then his eyes widen in realization. “Oh my God. You’re Creed Bratton?”
“The one and only.”
You know him? I mouth to James.
“Well, I know the Grass Roots,” he whispers, as if that’s any less impressive because Creed is not exactly a young guy.
James finally settles on a song, and he plunks a coin in the machine. The sound of applause pours out of the speakers and segues into the twang of guitars. Very Greg Brady.
Creed nods approvingly from behind the counter. “Good choice.”
James turns to me and offers his hand in a cheesy, exaggerated bow, and I have to laugh before turning him down. “No, I’m not drunk enough to dance.”
“Well we don’t have to dance. We can just sort of… sway.” He slowly moves his shoulders to the rhythm of the guitars, laughing at himself a little as he does so.
Okay, I guess I can’t really turn him down.
I slide off the barstool and join him in the middle of the empty floor. “You’re hard to say no to,” I tell him, extending my hand as a peace offering.
He smiles and takes it in his own, pulling me near but not close, and I’m instantly blown away by how well we complement each other. I’m finally noticing just how tall he is, even compared to me in heels, and the few parts of his body that I’m actually touching feel solid, strong. I put my other hand on his shoulder and let him lead.
One, two, three, four
Shah-la, la-la-la-la live for today
Shah-la, la-la-la-la live for today
And don't worry 'bout tomorrow hey, hey, hey
Shah-la, la-la-la-la live for today
Live for today
The bar seems to be moving rather than us as we go in circles on the floor. I steal little glances at the bar over James’s shoulder. Creed nods along to the music, but the remaining construction workers and the other patrons that have wandered in pay us no attention at all. For all I know, they are the ones that are moving.
There’s something unnerving about the sun still being out, something that makes it all seem a little more serious. Something about seeing the dust in the corner, the sources of shadows, the scuffs on the floor all illumined by the warm light streaming through the windows.
It’s less like magic.
It’s more like real life.
We make eye contact and suddenly it’s a little too much for me. A little too uncertain. I let my head fall against his shoulder as the last few lines of the song ring out. I’m feeling warm and flushed and I’m thinking I might want to ditch my blazer if this keeps going.
But it doesn’t. We gently pull apart, and somehow I’m not prepared for it, even though our separation is about as slow and predictable and cliché as you could make it.
He quickly runs his thumb over my knuckles before finally letting go of my hand, gravity getting the message before I do, and my hand falls to my side.
I look over at the bar again. No one seems to really care about the music. They’re all busy talking to each other and yelling at a baseball game happening on the TV.
I swallow my nerves and let them mingle with the butterflies in my stomach. “Do you want to… pick another?”
His smile is happiness and relief as he replies, “Why don’t you pick this one?”
Oh gosh. I was not ready to melt today.
“Um, because I’m not going to know any of those songs?” I offer, presenting my own nervous grin.
And with that we break into laughter, that kind of spell-breaking laughter that happens in the middle of a study session or a late-night road trip and totally distracts you from the situation at hand. We’re laughing so hard that we don’t even notice that Creed announces the bar is closing until the people at the bar start to protest.
“You need to close the bar to take a smoke break?” someone asks suspiciously.
A cloud of worry passes over Creed’s face. “Everyone out!” he says urgently. “We’ll be open later tonight.”
The other customers sigh and toss down a few bills before leaving. James tells me he’ll pay the tab, and I step outside to wait for him.
I figure it’s just as well. It was getting a little loud in there.