I swiveled on the high stool in surprise, nearly falling off. Graceful much? He was much thinner and his ocean eyes had bags under them. He had a five o’clock shadow and his hair looked ragged.
‘James.’ I said quietly. He smiled and shuffled a little awkwardly. I no longer felt that stomach dropping rush from when I was thirteen when he looked at me. There was a long pause.
‘Of all the motherfucking gin joints in all the towns, and you walk into mine.’ I said jauntily. His laugh came easy and loud.
‘Casablanca.’ He said with a nod of his head. I felt some of the tension between us disappear. But most of it was still there. He went to sit down as a shill squeal of laughter came from the teeny boppers table. Don’t they say, every time a teeny bopper laughs, someone loses a follower on Snapchat? That might not be the saying, but it’s something like that.
‘Don’t sit down here, let’s go somewhere quieter.’ I said quickly. ‘Do you want a drink?’
He looked hesitant at Dallas who had miraculously appeared at the chance of making some more money.
‘Uh yeah, just a beer thanks, mate.’ He said. I quickly downed my drink. Suddenly I felt a little nervous. I hadn’t seen him in four years. What the fuck were we supposed to talk about? My life hadn’t changed that much. Actually at all.
Eyeing my now empty drink he threw a twenty dollar note on the counter.
‘Actually, make that two.’
We sat at the booth in the corner. The seats were high and it was the furthest away from Bernie's Counter.
He placed the drinks from Dallas down and pushed one over to me.
‘I never thought I would buy little Princess Sophie a drink, holy shit.’ He laughed a little nervously staring down at the bottle.
‘Don’t worry you’re not the first.’ I mumbled cheekily, smiling at his nervousness.
‘I bet.’ He suddenly looked up meeting my eyes with regret. ‘I didn’t mean it like that. I just, I meant that...anyway, how are you what have you been up to? I haven’t seen you in like four years.’
‘I’m okay, I work for the motel now. Oh, and the diner. Just cleaning and front desk stuff sometimes. Mum decided to retire early you see.’
He was nodding enthusiastically.
‘That's really good.’ He gulped at his drink.
He obviously hadn’t listened to what I said. I moved my eyes to the view from the large glass window next to me.
I could see the motels nightly show of disordered hazy lights, exploding rudely into the darkness. A car zoomed past and interrupted my day dream.
‘How long are you guys staying for?’ I asked as he pushed back his hair and finally met my eyes.
‘Actually, it’s just me.’ He said quietly. He paused as if he was going to say something but it caught in his throat. ‘Dad’s dead. Mum’s moved to Invercargill and I was married, but uh. Not anymore.’
He looked pale at this and pity for him, surged around my body. But I rolled my lips together tightly and the thought of the girl that had gotten out of the car with him that dreadful summer. I bet it was her he married. I tried to find that same thirteen-year-old jealousy that had been so easy to reach in those first few months after her visit, but it wasn’t there. I was too tired to be jealous or angry. And I wasn’t thirteen anymore.
‘Wow, you dickhead. Married and unmarried. You sure as hell beat me. I was sure I was going to get a divorce before you!’ I blurted out in a weak attempt at humor.
Thankfully he laughed and his shoulders relaxed slightly. He stared at me from over his drink, his eyes penetrated my skin like needles.
‘So no handsome rich ex-husband yet? Damn kid, I had high hopes for you.’ He laughed again and I flicked my hair back.
‘Well, I didn’t want to say anything before because I didn’t want to put you to shame as usual-’ I spoke with that Auckland girl drawl I had gotten so good at. I guess Teeny Boppers are good for something.
‘As usual?’ He tipped his glass in overacted surprise.
‘I’m on my third rich, handsome ex-husband. We just got divorced last week it was all very dramatic. My seventeen children and three puppies were all devastated-’
‘Only seventeen children?
‘All under three.’
‘You know that's not biologically possible right? Just because you know, highschool dropout and all.’ He spread his hands in the air, probing it in feigned caution.
Cue the dramatic indignation.
‘Excuse me, you can’t dropout if you never attended in the first place.’
‘That's fair.’ He contemplated this for a minute. ‘Then how the fuck did you get so smart.’
I continued in my drawl. ‘Well you know, I had many private tutors all french and hot-’
He interrupted me by leaning forward. ‘No seriously. I’ve heard you talking about thermonuclear physics with my Dad when you were like nine. The two summers when I was still in college and I let you help on my homework because I couldn’t go outside with you, I got fucking A’s. Seriously, is your Mum like a freaky genetic scientist or something and she programed you when you were in her uterus?’
I was taken aback by the onslaught of compliments and dropped my drawl.
‘You’ve met my Mum. How could you possibly draw that conclusion?’
He leaned back in his chair. I remembered doing his homework with him, I had thought it was really fun because I pretended that I was just a normal kid doing summer homework. I was studying with my friend, preparing for the incoming school year. In my mind, we both went to the same school and had the same friend group.
We all would hang out at lunchtime, swapping stories about the history teacher perving on the girls or how the science teacher was texting her boyfriend while she was supposed to be teaching. In my mind, my group of friends would walk to a coffee shop after school. And when we graduated we would all go on a road trip together.
‘Nope. I’ve never met your mother. Though, I take it from your tone that she’s probably not a scientist.’ He said, dragging me once again out of my memories. ‘You never let me see any of your family. Honestly, my mum was convinced that you didn’t even have any family and were just like living, abandoned, in a motel on the side of the highway. She was half ready to call in child services one summer.’
‘You’ve really never met my family?’ I shook my head in amazement.
‘So how you did you do it? How did you become a prodigy of intelligence?’
‘That’s very kind but I’m really not.’ He looked as though he was about to object so I continued. ‘I guess I just read lots of books about lots of stuff.’
He was nodding rubbing at his five o’clock shadow. ‘Hmm, read broadly. That's what all the CEO’s are saying these days. Read broadly and wake up at five AM.’
‘Well if it makes you feel any better I don’t think I’ve ever woken up at five AM in my entire life.’
That was my first lie to him. I woke up every other night and you could choose from a catalog of reasons. The most common being that Lu Lu had a guest over in the next room. I have learned everything I know about faking an orgasm from her. I even can recognize what sort of mood she's in based on the tone and pitch of her moaning. Low means she’s bored, high means she’s drunk, probably on purpose, fast means she wants to get things over with quickly so she can go to sleep.
I sometimes woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat because of any one number of grisly dreams. A particular favourite of my subconscious was to let me think there was a man standing over me watching me. This one had originated out of one of mums ‘friends’ coming into our room high and unannounced. In his haze he was trying to figure out if I was my mother or not. I’m just glad he didn’t decide, before I woke up and screamed the entire motel awake.