by: T.E. Cowell  ((Header art is entitled “Pleasant Distractions” by Michael Lang.))

“He can play the game because he doesn’t care, because to him, it really is just a game.” A short story where even the most inviting of distractions cannot temper the lure of a true infatuation…

The first bar Josh visits is dead, but it’s still early in the night so he orders a second Red Stripe when the bartender comes over. This bar can get lively on weekends, when cover bands play the likes of The Doors on the small stage behind the two pool tables. The rest of the week, though, the bar stays pretty mellow. Right now, for instance, a Wednesday around eight, there’s just a handful of the regulars huddled up to the bar, old hunchbacked guys with cracked teeth and sunken eyes and tattoos so faded they hardly look like tattoos anymore and more like bruises. The regulars sit where they always sit, on the barstools nearest the door, because it’s the minimum number of steps required to traipse outside to the sidewalk and have a smoke. Besides the regulars there’s a lone businessman in a suit with his tie loosened around his neck sitting at the other end of the bar, nursing a pint of amber ale and doing his best to distract himself from reality by means of the Lakers game on the TV.

Josh is sitting a comfortable distance away from the regulars and the guy watching the basketball game. His second Red Stripe materializes before him, and he tells the bartender to close his tab. He picks the cold beer up, takes a swig and sets the bottle back on the counter.

Like the guy watching the Lakers game, Josh is trying to distract himself from reality too, specifically from a girl named Emily, who broke up with him about three months ago after discovering she was pregnant. Josh was both relieved and also somewhat pained when Emily told him she was going to have an abortion. He was relieved because he didn’t feel ready yet to be a father and pained because, well, something that was part him and part Emily was going to die before it had even been given a chance to live.

After finishing his second Red Stripe Josh pays the bartender and walks out onto the sidewalk. He squints his eyes and waits for them to adjust to what’s left of the daylight. The sun’s getting ready to set over the Pacific, and the golden light bathes the row of businesses on the other side of the street. Josh starts walking toward bar number two, a cheesy joint on the next block that he doesn’t much like but that he goes to anyways because the girls there are often attractive. Flirting, and ultimately trying to hook up with attractive girls, the challenge of it, is just one more distraction for Josh so that he doesn’t have to think about Emily.

Unlike bar one, because of the typical abundance of attractive girls, bar two attracts a lot of brawns-over-brain-type guys. A few times over the past few months Josh has gotten into little arguments with these bohemiths over a girl they were both trying to take home. One time Josh was pushed to the ground, but before he could retaliate a bouncer squeezed between him and the guy wearing a t-shirt at least two sizes too small. It was probably for the better that the bouncer stepped in the way, as there was a good chance Josh would’ve gotten his ass handed to him, though he’d been ready to swing at the guy all the same.

Josh makes his way to the bar, already filled with young revelers. He waits for the bartender’s attention and when he gets it, orders a whiskey-and-coke. While waiting for his drink he scans the crowd: a gaggle of college-age twenty somethings all smiling and laughing. All happy, so damn happy.

Josh works on his whiskey-and-coke, moving his eyes back and forth over the three most attractive females that aren’t at the moment being hit on. He waits for the girls to return his look, to reveal a flicker of interest in their eyes. Josh has never had a problem chatting up girls, making them smile and feel comfortable. He knows what to say to the opposite sex. He knows how to act. He can play the game because he doesn’t care, because to him, it really is just a game.

He gets one of the three girls’ attention, plays eye tag with her for a few minutes before walking over to her and introducing himself. She accepts his outstretched hand and says her name’s Cyndi. She has a nice body and a decent face. Though Josh doesn’t find her as pretty as Emily, she will do, he thinks, she will do just fine.

They start with small talk: “Do you live around here? What do you do?”­­ Josh finds out that Cyndi is a sophomore in college and that she’s majoring in recording arts. She likes music, she says, and then they start naming a few bands they like. Josh pretends to be engaged but really he’s bored, his eyes keep falling to Cyndi’s cleavage when she looks away.

He buys her a drink, a vodka tonic, and himself another whiskey-and-coke. Josh succeeds in making her laugh a few times. After their drinks Josh pays, and they leave the bar and walk to his apartment which is a few blocks away in an alleyway.

They start making out after Josh tosses his keys on the kitchen counter. He guides Cyndi towards his room, where things move forward at an alarming rate. Soon Josh is putting on a condom, a thing that he doesn’t entirely trust anymore, as somehow or other the condom he’d worn while having sex with Emily that one time had gotten a tear in it. He’d pulled out and said, “Uh-oh,” then looked at Emily, who said, “What the hell happened?”

In the morning he cracks open the window by his bed and lights a joint. Cyndi has spent the night at his place, claiming she was too hammered to drive back to her dorm. She’s still asleep while Josh starts to smoke. He blows the smoke out the window and through it he can hear distant seagulls making their morning cries and, ever so faintly, the sound of the waves crashing on the beach.

Soon Cyndi stirs and opens her eyes. She stretches her body beneath the sheets and an irresistible yawn escapes her. Then she looks at Josh and smiles.

“Morning,” Josh says.

He offers her the joint, what’s left of it, and she props herself up on one elbow and puts the joint to her lips. She is still beautiful in the morning, though there’s something vulnerable about her now, something that Josh hadn’t seen in her yesterday.      

When the joint’s finished Cyndi asks what time it is and Josh gets out of bed to check his phone. He picks the pants he’d worn last night off the carpet and digs his phone from one of the pockets.

“Nine-forty,” he says, and then he sees that he has a new text message. He checks the message and discovers that it’s from Emily. It’s the first message he’s received from her in months, and he walks out of his bedroom without saying another word to Cyndi. He goes into the bathroom and closes the door. The message reads:

Hey. So I’ve been doing some thinking. A lot of thinking, actually. Anyways, I was wondering if you might like to grab breakfast with me at our old spot around ten this morning. If you don’t or you’re busy that’s totally cool. I just thought it’d be nice to see you and catch up and all…

Josh goes back into the bedroom, finds Cyndi still in his bed. She looks at him and smiles again. “Hey,” he says, “sorry, but I have to get going. I overslept. I’ll be late for work if I don’t leave like right now.”

“Oh, okay,” Cyndi says, sounding a little disappointed.

They both get dressed, Cyndi in the same clothes she’d worn last night, jeans and a sleeveless shirt, Josh in a fresh pair of pants and a t-shirt. Cyndi uses the bathroom, which takes an excruciatingly long time, and while she’s in there Josh texts Emily back, saying how he’d like to see her too, if it’d be okay if he was a few minutes late.

He receives a text back from her not a minute later: Yes, of course. I’m just drinking a coffee and watching the people go by on the boardwalk.

Finally they leave Josh’s apartment. Josh walks with Cyndi down towards where her car is parked. When they get there, before getting in, she turns and faces him and says, “I had a good time with you.”

Josh nods. “Me too,” he says unconvinced. He looks at Cyndi for another second, his hands in his pant pockets, then nods his head, trying to wrap things up in a more or less appropriate manner and waiting for Cyndi to turn around and get in her car and exit from his life as quickly as she’d entered it. She hesitates though, but Josh starts to turn around all the same, losing patience.       

“Wait,” Cyndi says. “Do you, like, want my number?”

Josh turns back around. Contrary to how Cyndi had portrayed herself in the bar, she’s a sweet girl, he thinks, still largely innocent.

“Okay,” he says.

Cyndi opens the driver’s side door of her car, takes out a pen and a torn piece of paper and writes her number down and hands it to Josh.

“Thanks,” Josh says, putting the paper into his pocket. Cyndi smiles once more, then gets in her car and starts the engine. Josh turns and is off, first walking, then running, running as fast as he can, thinking of Emily now, of Emily and nothing else.  

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