Atam could feel the thrum-thrum, thru-du-thrum of the bassline through the thinning brick wall of the Cairo, and braced himself as he opened the door, expecting to be assaulted by a wall of sound. But nothing of the sort happened. The smoky jazz being played was dense and weighty, but indeed quiet enough to hear someone speak at a normal volume. He couldn’t tell if the club was lit with purple or orange light, but he was certain that the walls were orange and green. The room was dotted by tall tables for two, each with its own low-hanging ceiling lamp, the source of that confusing hue that saturated the room. The lamps were lit at a perfect, calculated intensity, only as dark as was possible without obscuring anyone’s face. The wall on the left, opposite the sleek onyx bar counter, was lined with cushy circular leather booths, and on the walls above those booths were posters of French women in black backless dresses with tight bobbed hair that just barely passed their jawlines. Each was built like the stem of their martini glass: thin and nondescript, but their featureless figures were sleek, even lithe. The posters were only another of the Cairo’s carefully selected fixtures, each an exercise in tantalizing moderation, allowing its visitors indulgence that masqueraded as understated worldliness. The Cairo’s patrons conspicuously eschewed excess, opting instead for a measured symposium of sin that better suited their own self-image. They wanted to fuck and get fucked, but they wanted people to listen to them even more, and they couldn’t imagine better foreplay than mercilessly critiquing the house band.
Atam turned to the right and sat at the very first seat at the bar counter, near the doorway. He perused the list of house drinks after ordering the first one on the list. The bartender placed a cutting board with his drink’s ingredients in front of him and in thirty seconds and more than thirty theatrical flourishes from the bartender, his drink was ready. He tipped the bartender generously, ensuring he didn’t have enough for his next drink. The bartender gave him a nod and disappeared behind a curtain. He sipped his drink and surveyed the counter. The drink was citrusy, which he liked, but it had the unpleasant bite of too much ginger. His eyes teared up and his nostrils flared, and he noticed that the onyx counter was actually deep purple, and so were all of the other dark elements of the establishment. The uniforms of the staff, the curtains behind the counter, and even the deceptive ceiling lamps all sported the exact same inky shade.
The door swung open and he felt the cold air creep into the room and linger on the nape of his neck. He turned to see the newest guest of Cairo saunter over to the other end of the bar and lean against the counter without sitting down. It was as if one of the French girls from the posters had peeled herself down from the wall and now stood before him. She checked her phone and adjusted, leaning harder into the counter, her body making a distinctive S-bend. She was willowy and, yes – lithe – a seductive sapling in a dangling black cocktail dress. She stood like that for several minutes, eyeing the door and sucking on the tips of her bobbed hair in the corners of her mouth. Finally, Atam felt that ungodly night air on his neck again, and she sauntered back over towards the entrance to greet her date, an average-looking, average-height man with a pompadour and a beard the length of a buzz-cut. Atam watched them as he asked her what she wanted, then bought her a vodka martini with no olives. He then sheepishly admitted to being in the mood for bourbon and got himself an old fashioned. Atam cocked his head so his ear was facing them, hearing him say something about not being able to help himself sometimes.
The willowy woman smiled. It was genuine and a little patronizing, as though she was married to the man and he was embarrassing her, but then said, “Don’t help yourself, amor. Your papí liked bourbon. My mamí liked margaritas. Sometimes I drink them when I miss her. Then I miss her more. But we keep going. And we don’t forget.”
The man smiled warmly and put his hands on the small of his back to kiss her, but his phone rang. He sighed and jogged outside to take it, and came back in seconds later, clenching his jaw. He whispered something in her ear and she nodded, whispering all too loudly, “We have the rest of the week, amor. You can make it up to me.”
He nodded back, running his hand through his hair. “It’s just – I can’t ever get away from work anymore. Promise you won’t tell Des and Lorna why I left?”
She wrapped her arms around him and planted a tight-lipped kiss on his lips and murmured, “Now why would I do something like that? You go take care of your business, and I will tell Des and Lorna about your poor sick grandmother that the rest of the family ignores, and how much you want to get the most out of her last years.”
He put on his coat and hugged her tighter than anyone would want to be hugged, then turned on his heels and jogged back out the door and out of sight. The woman finally sat down and took to twirling a toothpick round her glass. Atam watched for several minutes, then took a deep breath, walked over to her end of the counter, and shoved himself into the stool next to her. “I don’t think either of us want to drink alone right now,” he said.
“Why do you think I need a drinking friend? I have friends coming in thirty minutes,” she asked as she turned to look at him. Her shoulders slumped, and her elbows rested firmly on the table, which made him think she really did want to be alone, but her eyes issued a challenge as they rose to meet his own.
He didn’t know what he would say, but he opened his mouth anyway. “You can discard me when your friends arrive, but I’m a charitable guy. I don’t let beautiful women drink alone,” he said, and he immediately regretted it, but she was watching, waiting for him to show it, so he didn’t, doubling down on his gaze.
“Oooooh, you are very bold. I think you are too bold. How long have you seen me here?” she asked, arms now crossed either in disbelief or indignation.
Any confidence Atam had stretched out to shield him from her assessment now snapped back, and he felt a pang in his stomach. He apologized and got up to return to his end of the bar but felt a long-nailed hand pulling at the back of his shirt.
“You are lucky that I need you, amor, because I would be hitting you otherwise. You are right, but not for the right reasons. I don’t want to drink alone because I want you to stay and spend time with my friends, and I need to tell you how this will work,” she said. She seemed to be pleading, but nothing save for her words gave any indication of that.
“I think you don’t need me,” Atam leaned in and muttered under his breath, “but I’m willing to try and be whatever it is that you do.”