Taking her on a walk through the outskirts of Chinatown was a bad idea, especially at this time of day. The air itself stung your skin with the accumulated heat, the humidity drawing sweat out like a seasoned fisherman reeling in his cod. I was a sticky mess by the time we walked two blocks. I didn’t know about how she felt, didn’t actually bother to ask.
“Let’s get into here,” I said. I led her by the hand into the nearest cafe I saw, tucked into the corner of a strangely angled shophouse that bisected the main road into two smaller lanes. “Let’s just pretend to eat something and have a rest.”
We ended up actually eating something. My knife cut the burger perfectly down the centre, and it fell apart like a post party crowd. I felt for the bottom bun with my thumb, and clammed the top with my four fingers, passing her half unceremoniously to her plate, the other half to mine. We chewed like most people do, and talked about the heat in between. It was so typical, so very typical. I could not believe it had been like this for two years. Just me and her, having these little walks, week in, week out. How?
We paid the bill, both of us going very Dutch indeed. We normally cut the bill down to the nearest five cents. I watched as she sipped the remainder of the ice lemon tea. The liquid quickly disappeared as it bottomed out near the part of the glass with the most ice. There was a quick suction sound.
“I’m going to the toilet.” She announced.
“Ok, I’ll just look around.”
She walked behind the bar counter where the toilets were, as I inspected a staircase near the entrance that led to a second storey. There was a red barrier rope blocking the path, supported by two golden stanchions. I decided to push one of the stanchions aside, giving a quick glance to the blindspot behind. None of the waiters or waitresses noticed me break this precious barrier, so I slipped up the steps on my own.
Above the air was considerably stuffier, like someone took a thick blanket and draped it over me. My neck burned under the wooly thickness of my polo shirt. I stuck two fingers into the gap of my top two buttons and fanned myself by oscillating the loose fabric back and forth. I noticed an overwhelming silence. It was the silence inside a whale’s belly, a quiet that made you feel utterly trapped.
And then there it was, before me a huge bar on the second storey.
The bar covered the entire floor, and was draped in oiled dark wood from floor to bar table. The tables were glass topped with wooden legs accompanied by rattan chairs made of lighter wood. The entire bar was shielded by a wall of bottled spirits that extended to the ceilings, behind the bar, encrusted the walls around tiny windows. From Belvedere clear to Midori green, it seemed a brilliant armour against the outside world, each spirit holding with it the potential for an interesting story to be told or undertaken. It was this bar against the world.
“Welcome,” came a voice from behind.
I almost jumped out of my shirt. It was an old man wearing waiter’s attire.
“Hello…” I started cautiously.
“You know you’re not supposed to be here.”
“I’m sorry,” I blurted.
“Welcome then, to my studio.”
“Studio?” I motioned at the wall of hard liquor.
“Sit down.” He commanded without expression, without explanation. He looked at least seventy. Old was written all over his face, from his folded eyelids to his shaky hands as he motioned towards the seat in front of the bar. His movement, though, wasn’t compromised by his age. He strode past me with surprising agility, with the sharpness of a practiced march. He entered the bar, standing opposite me where I eventually sat.
“I’ll make you a drink,” he offered.
“That’s really not necessary.” I thought of her waiting downstairs. She was probably already done.
“No, I insist. I’ve been doing this since 1959.”
I did some quick calculations. Fifty over years. I weighed that with the five over minutes she would take in the toilet. The five minutes won.
“Erm, my friend. She’s waiting. Downstairs. I have to go.”
“Alright, tell me more about this friend.” He gave a cheeky grin. As if he knew something.
“Just a friend. What else is there to know? Just me and a friend. And this cafe. And then this studio.”
“Just a friend?”
I looked at him. What was his meaning? I imagined the toilet bowl flushing with great urgency, her rushing out and screaming my name. “I really need to go.”
“No, it’s nothing. I just noticed you holding her hand as you walked into the cafe. It must have meant something more than friendship, at least from how I see it.”
I sighed. A deep sigh that would have lifted a manhole cover if it had the chance.
“It’s complicated,” I finally relented.
“I see that being used on Facebook now and then. Surprising eh, an old man like me on Facebook? But back to you. Do explain what you mean. I never understood complicated.”
I looked at the old man. An inconspicuous, aged bartender with nothing better to do with his life stared back at me. The air was stiller than an indoor pond. I decided it would be okay, just this once, to trust a stranger with my secrets.
“I don’t know if we’re together. We never had any labels. Since the start. She liked it that way and I caught on. It’s been two years. We do things but no one knows us as a couple.”
“I see a but coming up.”
I frowned. I tried to come up with a different permutation to start the sentence but my brain failed me. “But … I don’t see it anymore. It’s boring and terrible and I don’t want to be there for her if I don’t have the assurance that she’ll be there for me.”
“I catch your drift. At such a rickety juncture, don’t you want to just end things?”
“We’re too much a part of each other’s lives. It isn’t so simple. We’ve reached that stage of comfort where tremendous consequences would abound should we decide to end things. I have that feeling you know, that we’ll just gravitate back to each other in the end. Somehow.”
The old man frowned, but remained silent. Impatience tightened its grip on me.
“Okay well, thanks for listening. But I really have to go now.” I stood up to leave, tucking the barstool under the counter.
“Wait. I owe you a drink.”
“She’s probably waiting already.”
“Trust me, she’s not.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I’ll give you a choice.” Ignoring my statement, he stood up suddenly and got to action, grabbing bottles from the bar counter, exotic spirits I had never laid eyes upon in my short existence. He stirred, shook, layered as he poured in shots and splashes. Brown turned to dark green which then later turned ivory white which then turned grey to red before finally, the drink turned black. Pitch black.
He placed the drink in front of me.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Drink this and your friend disappears.”
“Your friend won’t die, don’t worry. Neither will she be cast into an alternate universe. What I’m saying is, you drink this and it will be as if you and her never met. You’ll lose all feelings for her. In fact you’ll forget she even exists, and the same for her as well. Two of you will still exist, just not in each other’s lives. You walk down and she won’t be there. Your problems will be solved. You will be free of this said friendship. Sounds like a deal?”
“Why should I believe you?” Why should I believe him!
“Fair enough. You don’t have to believe me. But I’ll tell you for sure that this drink isn’t poisonous or toxic. If you drink this and nothing happens then there won’t be much of a consequence, would there? If I were you, I’d give this a shot. Get it, a shot?” He laughed at his own joke. I wanted to walk away then and there.
But he was right. If I truly didn’t believe him I would have just downed the free drink. I always liked a challenge of a horrible drink, and this dark liquid stared at me as if taunting me to back off. It looked absolutely putrid.
The old man pushed the glass nearer to the edge of the bar, his cheeky grin expanding as if the drink mattered. It probably did, at least to him.
Just as the glass was about to tip over the edge, instinct took over and I grabbed the drink, balancing it in my master hand.
“It’s in your hands now. Down it.”
I looked him firmly in the eye this time, this pathetic old man with nothing but deceit and pointless tales. I was not falling for his trap. I let the glass slip through my hands, and made sure both of us watched as it shattered on the dark wood.
The old man’s smile immediately shifted into a frown. He eyed me with comtempt, and raised a foreboding finger at my face.
“You’ll regret this. I gave you a chance for a new start; and you throw it away just like that.”
I had a lot to say to him, so much in fact. But I decided then and there, that I would say it to her instead. We romanticise the intervention of strangers with such fury that we leave out the most important people in our lives.
I turned away from him and marched down, allowing the air to cool around me, the stuffy blanket lifting off my shoulders.
She was waiting at the bar counter, inspecting a poster on the history of the clarinet.
“Where the fuck were you? I called you four times and each time your line was down.”
I told her I was sorry. And then I told her. I held her by the shoulders, in the middle of a semi crowded cafe.
“I only want to be with you if you want it as well.”
“Is there something I missed?”
“No, it’s just that I’ve been thinking. It has been two years of this. You know what I mean? This? I dont even know what this is. And I know for sure that it’s time to make a decision. Either you tell me you see a future in us or I walk away right now, plain and simple. What do you say?”
“Where did you go just now?” She asked. She was avoiding the question.
“I’ll tell you later. I just need to know now, how you feel about us. For once I really do. This is me talking now, not the silly boy you’ve been holding hands with for the past two years. It’s me and I want to know. I deserve to know.”
You’ll regret this. I gave you a chance for a new start.
“Just tell me where you went first. And then I’ll tell you how I really feel. You’re getting me worried.”
“Why is where I went so important?”
“Because clearly it got you thinking about this! I’ve told you from the start that we weren’t supposed to think about us. And now you have and I don’t know what to tell you.”
“Have you been thinking of this?”
“Of course I have! Who do you think I am, a park bench? Of course I think.”
I pointed at the steps, almost envisioned the golden stanchions and the red rope, the smooth steps leading up.
“I went up there.”
But when we both turned around there was nothing. No staircase, no golden stanchions, no red rope. All that stared back was a blank wall; cold, white, formless.
There is in fact a place near Chinatown called Studio 1939, which was where the cover picture was taken. Other than that, the entire piece is fictional. Staircases obviously don’t just disappear and I assure you the protagonist was not under any influence.