Sometimes Jamie wondered if he was face blind.
The door to the Shooting Star swung open with the ringing of a dangling bell, and a girl was walking into the bar brushing her wet hair back from her forehead and wrestling her way out of a raincoat.
Is that her? Jamie thought to himself. It must be her.
He tried to link her face to the five pictures of her he had seen. An unwieldy gallery of just five chances to make a good first impression.
He’d inspected them like somebody buying fruit at the supermarket. Eyes only—he’d once been told off for squeezing the avocados.
The girl scanned the room but her eyes brushed past him without settling—even though there were only a handful of other patrons and he was the only one waiting alone, watching the pictures flicker by on his phone.
Maybe she was face blind, too.
He thought about just getting up and slipping out the back, letting this whole evening go. He could go home and draw a bath and crack a beer and pack a bowl and put on a record. He was just reaching for his coat when she interrupted him.
“Jamie?” she asked, not sounding very sure. He had shaved since those selfies.
“Ruth.” He let his coat go and got up to hug her lightly, patting her shoulder blades. She limply responded and took a seat opposite him.
“Hey,” she said, taking off her glasses and wiping the rain from them. “I’m sorry I’m late.”
“No worries,” he said. “I was actually late, too. I only got here a few minutes ago.”
This was a lie. He had been there for just over a quarter of an hour.
They stood together and approached the bar, him surveying her height surreptitiously from the corner of his eye—tall but not taller than him, thankfully—while she scanned the countertop for a menu.
She spent a good minute or two looking down the list of cocktails while he wondered if she expected him to pay for the whole tab. He would suggest going splits on the whole thing, but he worried that was a red flag. He didn’t have a lot of money, but you weren’t supposed to let on about that.
Ruth ordered an Aperol spritz.
“So, nice to actually meet in person!” she said.
The bartender appeared with the Eftpos machine, and she fiddled with the keypad. His shirt was unbuttoned, and by the two orphaned buttons on the countertop, it looked like it had got that way in a hurry.
The couple watched the Eftpos machine in anticipation as it judged Ruth’s card. She breathed out audibly, reassured, when it beeped its benediction.
Jamie ordered a Stella and returned his focus to Ruth. She was ruddy-cheeked from the cold, her hair still wet.
“Yeah,” he said. “I hate messaging online, to be honest. It’s hard to get the tone people are going for.”
“That’s why I use so many GIFs and emojis,” she said.
He nodded, like a scientist who has discovered some new piece of information that backs up his previously held belief. “Makes sense.”
They carried their drinks back to the table—him watching the rim of his glass to make sure he did not spill. There were certain things he wouldn’t be able to come back from, and the red in his face would be there all evening. He could already feel a stubborn bead of sweat on his forehead.
They clinked glasses, eyes trained on their hands rather than each other. “Well, here’s to meeting people in real life!” he said, and she laughed.
“Busy day?” he asked her. “Did you have work?”
“So busy,” she said, taking a sip. “Couldn’t wait to get out of there! How about you?”
“Not much going on today,” he said. “My job ended last week.”
“Oh right, you told me that!” she said. “I think I had you mixed up with somebody else. Must be nice to have all of that free time, though,” she said.
“It’s good,” he said. “It’s nice to get out of the house, though.”
“Oh yeah, that’s true. I’d probably go a bit crazy if my company ended. But that’s just what I’m like. I have to be around people all the time.” She laughed nervously and took another sip.
“Your job isn’t ending?”
“Not at the moment,” she said. “My bosses were talking about it a while back, but I think they decided we shouldn’t. We give people an essential service and all of that.”
“Right, of course,” said Jamie, wondering what part of her PR job was the essential bit. “I mean…we still need people to communicate stuff, right?”
“We’ll always need storytellers,” she said, looking out the window and halfway down the street, where a group of high school kids were waiting for the bus in the rain. “Without them, what’s the point?”
“Oh yeah, of course,” said Jamie. He thought about what to say next and decided to inspect the label of his beer instead.
The bartender appeared, a bamboo bowl in hand. “Here guys,” he said. “On the house!” He set it down.
“Thanks!” said Jamie, before looking at what was in the bowl.
“Wasabi peas,” said Ruth. “I’d better not.”
Jamie took a few and tossed them into his mouth, more because they were free than because he actually liked them.
“Don’t do spicy stuff?”
“I’m not really meant to right now,” she said. “Although I’m not really worried about that.” She popped a solitary pea in her mouth and crunched it into atoms. “Don’t mind me, I’m just being weird.”
“You’re alright,” Jamie said. “I’m just eating these because they were free.”
She laughed. “The size of a pea,” she said and laughed again, this time with the bitter aftertaste of a shot of liquor.
“Nothing. Do you have any plans before the big day?” she said.
“Well, at the moment I’m just taking it sort of day by day and figuring it out,” he said.
“Oh, that’s so important. You have to take off some time just for you every now and then. Especially now, right?”
“What about on the night? Know what party you’ll be at?”
“I’ve had a few invites,” he lied, smiling. “Still thinking about it.”
“Oh, me too. I can’t decide if I want to do my last friends’ night the night before or my last family night the night before. I mean, it would be so fun to be with my friends on the night, but I don’t want to regret not being with my mum or my sister.”
“Why don’t you take them to the party?”
“Yeah, I could. But they have their own plans. My little sister is so annoying, she keeps going on about who she’s going to make out with at the end of the night.”
“Right,” he said. “That’s a whole thing, right.”
She popped another wasabi pea into her mouth. “Yep,” she said. “Have you thought about it?”
“A little bit,” he said, feeling his cheeks turn warm. “Not that much.”
Pregnant silence, broken prematurely by Ruth’s giggle. “Let’s not go so fast, aye?”
He nodded, grinning. “Up to you,” he said.
She had finished her drink.
“Can I get you another?” he said.
“Yeah, go on, same again,” she said.
He went up to the bar and waited while the bartender finished talking to two good-looking girls down the other end, watching himself in the mirror. The pimple on the bridge of his nose was still there. He rubbed at it as if it might fade away before he had to sit down and face Ruth again.
The bartender was still flirting with the girls. He poured three shots of tequila and they whooped before slamming them down. The girls grimaced as it hit their stomachs but the bartender was dead-eyed, already reaching for the bottle again.
“Excuse me?” Jamie said, loud enough that Ruth would have heard him but not loud enough to break into the bartender’s little party. He leaned forward over the bar so that he would appear in the bartender’s peripheral vision and cleared his throat. “Hi?”
The bartender looked up.
“Shit, sorry mate,” he said as he made his way down the bar, tequila bottle still in hand. “Let me make it up to you.”
He placed a shot glass down in front of Jamie with a thump.
“Um, I don’t know…” Jamie said, looking back over his shoulder at his date. She was busy on her phone.
“One for your missus, too!” the bartender said, pulling out another shot glass. “And you girls!” he called down the bar to the two blondes, who were taking a selfie with a mirrored backdrop. “Get down here!”
“Uh, she’s not…” Jamie said, but the bartender’s attention was already back on the two girls. He turned to Ruth and she was smiling at him. “Let’s do it,” she said. “I feel like tomorrow’s a sick day anyway, right?”
Jamie laughed as she joined them at the bar. Five shots of tequila stood in front of them. The bartender pulled out a salt shaker. “Take this if you like,” he said. “Out of lemons, though.”
Of course, Jamie thought. He’d read about that online just that morning. He may have had his last lemon unless he shelled out for something from the Kerikeri trucks that had started coming down to the city. Space on the container ships from California and Singapore was too valuable for fruit.
“Who’s got a toast?” the bartender said. “I did the last one.”
The two girls who had joined them looked at Jamie expectedly, and he looked at Ruth and shrugged. “Shit, on the spot here, aren’t I?” he said.
“Nope,” she smiled. “I got one.”
They all raised their shot glasses. “To going out with a bang,” Ruth said and they all shared a weak cheer before clinking glasses and downing the drink.
The taste always reminded Jamie of succulent plants and one night in halls when he’d ended up unconscious on the floor of an elevator for most of the night. His fellow residents would have had to step gingerly over his prone form to hit their floor button. He awoke to the janitor poking him with a broom handle.
The bartender was already refilling the glasses. Jamie shot a look at Ruth and she shrugged.
“You aren’t working tomorrow, are you?” she asked him.
He shook his head.
“There you go.”
They took the glasses in their hands and Jamie racked his brains for a toast that might impress Ruth.
“To going out with a whimper,” he eventually said.
The bartender laughed, a single uncontrolled bray that spilled droplets of saliva all over the bartop. “Alright then,” he said. “To going out with a whimper!”
The second one went down slightly rougher, and Jamie had to close his eyes and take a few full gulps of oxygen, willing the contents of his stomach to settle in place. When he opened his eyes, Ruth was looking at him and smiling.
“You OK?” she said.
“Fine,” he said with a nod, clearing his throat of the acrid taste. “Haven’t done one of those in a few years!”
“Me neither,” she said. “Feels like the right time for it, though.”
The bartender shoved an open cigarette pack in Jamie’s face.
“I’m OK,” he said.
“Suit yourself,” the bartender smirked around the filter in his mouth. Ruth took one and accepted a light.
“Haven’t done one of these in a few years, either,” she said.
They pulled up a pair of stools there at the bar. Jamie leaned forward, his back arched, trying to skip dropping his elbows into pools of spilled tequila.
An ashtray went sliding past them at great speed on the liquor-lubed counter, before flying off the far end and hitting the wall with the thud of unbroken glass.
“Shit!” yelled the bartender. “I’m normally good at that!”
He tried again, but somehow gave the ashtray even more force. It slid by them like a hockey puck, glinting under the neons as it passed.
“Fuck it!” the bartender said to the ashtray, and leapt over the bar to join the two girls he had been trying to chat up.
The three of them moved to the doorway and huddled in the alcove just out of the rain, cupping their hands around the ends of their unlit cigarettes and swearing at the sputtering attempts of the bartender’s Bic.
Ruth reached over the bar and grabbed a bottle of white rum.
She held it up to Jamie and shrugged in invitation.
“Go on,” Jamie said, pushing his shot glass towards her.
They spent more time with the rum, watching how the light played on the outside of the glasses.
“You know what the worst thing about all of this is?”
Jamie shook his head. “You tell me.”
“I’m pregnant.” She smiled at him and took another sip. “Any ice over there?” She craned her neck over the bar and looked up and down, trying to peer under the rail. “Can’t see shit.”
Jamie nodded as he looked into his glass. “How far along?”
“Six weeks,” she said. “I only found out a few days ago.”
“Shit,” said Jamie, doing the math in his head.
“Yeah, he’s going to miss his big deadline.”
“I’m just guessing. I have a feeling. He’s a he. I mean, as much as he can be, he’s the size of a pea right now.”
“We should probably put this away, then,” Jamie said, sliding the bottle of rum down the bar away from them.
Ruth reached over and took it back.
“Come on Jamie,” she said. “It’s happy hour.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, looking at the backs of his hands as if they might offer him some solution. “That’s terrible timing.”
“I know,” she said. “It all is, isn’t it? Has anything had good timing lately?”
He shook his head, watching as she refilled their glasses.
“Well,” she said, lifting hers up. “Cheers to all that!”
“Cheers to the pea-sized boy,” Jamie said.
“Cheers,” Ruth said solemnly, and they drank deeply.
“The doctor told me his heart beats twice every second,” she said after wiping her mouth with the sleeve of her sweater. “He’s in a hurry to get somewhere.”
“I’m sure we all were,” Jamie said. “I definitely was. I was born like a month early.”
“You must have been in a hurry to get to right here,” Ruth said, lifting her arm and signaling the emptying bar. “Who could blame you.”
“At least he doesn’t have to deal with the bits in between,” he said.
“In between what?”
“You know, then…” He pointed at her abdomen. “And now. At least the whole show will be over for him before the good part gets ruined.”
“Didn’t you like your mum’s midwife or something?”
“I just never really got over that first big disappointment, I think.”
Ruth nodded and blotted her cigarette out on the countertop. “A lot of people don’t. The father didn’t.”
“He took the first train out.”
Jamie nodded. “Right.”
When the deadline was first announced, a good chunk of people took the first train out. They were found dangling in garages, boots brushing car roofs, or floating in the harbour.
“He just drove out south on State Highway One, totally wasted. They found his car in a ditch on the side of the Desert Road the next day. With him in it.”
“Shit, I’m sorry.” Jamie put his hand on Ruth’s.
She smiled weakly at him. “It’s alright. We weren’t really together or anything. He was kind of a prick. Just good looking. And fun, you know.”
“I don’t really.”
“That’s OK. You’ve got plenty of time.”
She laughed and he tried to join in, but it felt a little hollow from his end.
They got up and Jamie offered to pay for the drinks. Ruth gave one single protestation before letting him have it. Jamie approached the bar and peered around the room for the bartender or the girls he had last seen him with. Gone.
He turned back to Ruth and pantomimed a tragic shrug.
“Too bad,” she said, pulling on her jacket. “I wanted to give him a tip.”
They walked out into the rainy street, her hand clasped in his. The sweat on his palm worried him for a moment before he sternly told the thought to back down. Instead, he squeezed tighter, and felt their shoulders brushing against one another as they stepped out into the downpour.
The light in the sky was visible even through the thick layer of cloud. A circular patch of the murk was glowing like a giant fluorescent bullet hole.
Four months until a rock the size of Tasmania came through those clouds. Jamie put his arm around Ruth’s shoulders and pulled her in close, his heart beating twice a second.