There was never a good night to run into an ex, but a Sunday night in Los Angeles was worse than most. The bars were vacant, the drinking more desperate, the knowledge of Monday looming over everything. I had not wanted to go out, but I did not want to stay home, either. Ever since becoming single again, Sundays had that restless feeling I remembered them having in high school, the nervousness of what the next week would bring ruining the last moments of the weekend.
Television was never enough of a distraction, and so here I was, pulling into a half-empty parking lot belonging to one of those east L.A. bars that never really fill up during the week but certainly do not stand a chance on a Sunday. I was more punctual than usual, ready to meet my friends and kill some time until I could fall asleep. Just another wasted weekend.
I felt the anxious desperation of the single made visual in the makeup I had applied in my too bright bathroom, fueled by a desire to forget I would be going home alone. There was a fine line between artfully applied lip gloss and looking like a drag queen, and I never felt like I balanced it well. Just a little too much of the sparkly pink eye shadow, and I looked like Amanda Lepore’s stand-in. At least it was dark in here, and I savored my immunity from the cruel exposure of fluorescent bulbs. Perhaps the dim lighting would soften the rough touches of my awkward application.
I leaned against the bar, scanning the room while making half-hearted conversation with my friends, all of whom exuded the easy poise of the attached or married. It felt grim, the only potential highlight the bartender with her tight jeans and shiny hair. I hated crowded bars, but at least then there was a larger market from which to choose.
You can’t have everything, I thought, sighing, trying not to be too eager to get back home.
The first drink was innocent. The second intentional. The third an undecided possibility as I got up to go to the bathroom. I was losing the battle between being “positive” and going home to get in bed with my laptop and some CSI episodes. Technically, one could say I slept with William Petersen.
I decided to go to the bathroom to check my makeup, to confirm whether I was still making Amanda proud, and to collect my not-quite-sober thoughts, in a last ditch effort to focus and make this evening salvageable. If I managed just one phone number, I could go home happy. One serious stare in the bathroom mirror, accompanied by an equally serious personal talking-to, could be all that stood between me and accomplishment.
Leaving my friends at the bar, I was all business, in pursuit of that all-elusive positive attitude, and that’s when I saw him. He was just pulling his I.D. out of his wallet. He had not seen me yet, but I knew it was him immediately.
When you spend a year with someone, you know who they are without seeing their face. You have their posture, the way they move, and the way they breathe, etched into your brain. Even in the shadow of the doorway, even under his hat, I knew it was him, and I froze. I did not know what to do. Should I run? What a ridiculous idea. Run where? Into the bathroom? The bar was so small; he would see me as soon as I came out.
So I decided not to postpone the inevitable. I just stood there, waiting for him to put his wallet back in his pocket and discover me. I swallowed at the glimpse of his hips before averting my eyes to the safe neutrality of the bar. It still hurt that I saw him and could not touch him. I missed running my hand along his hips—and everything else.
I exhaled slowly. I tried to remember yogic breathing. I waited for him to look at me.
He noticed me a few seconds later. I smiled. He smiled back, stepping into the bar.
“Hey, Max,” I said.
“Hey, Lori,” he said.
I reached forward to put my arms around him. I felt him close, an instant of intimacy in the guise of formality. I smelled him, his mixture of deodorant and aftershave. For a moment, I thought nothing would stop me from going home with him, from falling asleep to that smell and the feel of his body, but then I remembered that we were not doing that anymore, and so I let go.
“Nice to see you,” I said.
“Nice to see you,” he said.
We stared at each other. Were we standing a little too close for exes who were not allowed to sleep with each other? If I stepped back further, would that be rude? If I stepped forward, would he push me away? Was he looking at me with more intensity than he should? Were his lips closer than society allowed?
I could not read his body language. Had I wanted him this much when we were together? My mind raced with questions, all of them fundamentally irrelevant. Nothing was going to happen, and I knew it. The breakup had been dramatic and final.
“How are things?” he asked.
“Things are good.”
He was wearing a green hat that I had never seen before. It must be new. There must have been a lot of new things that he had gotten since I had seen him last. Had he also gotten a new girlfriend?
“Are you seeing someone?” I wanted to ask, but I could not. I did not want him to know that I wanted to know, and I did not know what I would do with the answer. If he said no, would I be disappointed that he was single and still not interested in me? If he said yes, would I feel shattered because I wanted him for myself? And how would he interpret the fact that I cared enough to ask in the first place?
So I decided to stick with safety.
“How are things?” I asked.
“Good,” he replied, nodding, doing that noncommittal guy shrug thing.
His jacket was buttoned up to his collarbone even though it was another warm L.A. night. I wondered what he was wearing underneath. I thought about what would be underneath that. I could remember so clearly the way he looked in my mind that it seemed unfair no amount of recollection could make the memories real again. He had this soft skin, lightly covered with blonde hair, but now a jacket stood between that chest and me. It was a darker green than the hat, vaguely military in cut, and it looked amazing on him.
Of course, in my current state, I would probably have been seduced by an ordinary t-shirt or a bulky leather jacket (two favorites of his when we had been together) but this outfit, after those two drinks and half a year of unrequited desire, seemed like the epitome of style and seduction.
Until my friends appeared out of nowhere.
“What’s going on, Lori?” Rachel asked.
“Yeah, where’d you go?” Laura asked.
“Did you want that drink?” Sara asked.
They all stared at him. They knew who he was—and why he was persona non grata. I knew they were right, and I knew I should turn away with just a polite nod, but I still wished they would be the ones to disappear into holes in the floor, leaving me alone with him again, so I could recapture whatever pretense of a moment I had been pretending we were having.
They were my friends, though, which meant they were not going to let me even entertain the notion of hooking up with my ex. We all just stood there, one grand party in the foyer of a crappy bar, conversation flowing with no real direction while I tried to laugh but contributed nothing. He stared silently, until it got too awkward, and then he said he had to go, leaving us for the bar. I tried to ignore the disappointment in my gut.
“What was that about?” Sara asked.
“You okay?” Rachel looked at me with concern.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine.” I glanced over. He was sitting at the bar, talking to some guy with a hooded sweatshirt. If he had been meeting a girl, I would have died.
“Come back to the table. The hot bartender’s been asking about you,” said Laura, smiling.
“Yeah.” She nodded, with an even bigger grin. “And I don’t think it’s because of your tips. She wanted to know if you kiss girls, if you know what I mean…”
“And what did you tell her?”
“What do you think I told her? I told her only the hot ones!” She laughed.
I looked at the bartender. Laura was right. On a scale of hot bartenders, this lady was at least a ten, if not off the scale entirely. It was not so much the hair (short brown layers framing her face, brushing across her shoulders), or her eyes (greenish hazel brown), or the leanly defined arms (Pilates?), but the way they all slid together—the easy angular stance, the cool confidence, the lips sticky with clear lip-gloss. Even gum was sexy in her mouth.
She dropped some bills into the change glass and tilted her head up. We made eye contact. She winked. All my friends saw it.
“See?!” Rachel exclaimed, shoving me in a manner more typical to junior high cafeteria romantic trysts than grown-up bars.
“You know you want it…” Laura whispered loudly—and drunkenly—in my ear.
“Come on. Let’s get that third drink,” Sara said, grabbing hold of my sleeve and tugging me toward our seats.
I glanced toward the other bar. My ex was still talking to Mr. Hooded Sweatshirt. I looked back at Ms. Hot Bartender. She was making a drink for some guy with a knit cap.
“Come on,” tugged Sara.
What do you do?