He was fifteen minutes late. She took a sip of her virgin cocktail wishing she still drank. The revolving restaurant showed her the city skyline and the sun slipping invitingly beneath the clouds. And yet, she already wished she was at home in front of the television watching nothing in particular.
When he arrived he didn’t say he was sorry. He complained about work and traffic and the long wait for the elevator up, but mainly work. He didn’t say he was sorry and he didn’t kiss her or wish her a happy anniversary.
From the sweat reflecting off his balding head and the way he went straight for the bourbon without first ordering a beer, she could tell he’d been drinking. Probably with her.
As he talked, and as they sat between the bar and the sunset that slowly spun through the clear autumn sky, she looked out and thought of how much their city had changed since they had gone on their first date at this very table a lifetime ago. How the lights, now illuminating seemingly row by row, appeared to stretch forever and how she didn’t care anywhere near as much as she did when the affair first began, and wondered if he would ever notice that she even knew.
He drank some more and talked a lot more about how he’d have to be in Sydney next month for work. He talked of their dog and how its back legs had started to give out and how much he would miss the old girl when the inevitable goodbye came. He talked of his boss and how he’d got him box seats for some big game this Sunday.
He didn’t talk about their children, the son in Melbourne acting on stage, the daughter in London studying medicine, who had pooled together the little money they had to send them here for their 30th wedding anniversary. He didn’t ask about her or her upcoming long-service leave, her third lot, and how she’d like to spend it. He ate more of the beef and drank a lot more of the bourbon and did what he did best, lying, boasting and talking about himself.
Maybe she was bored. Maybe it was all that sugar from the colourful beverage giving her an unnatural high, or maybe she was a little dizzy from the altitude, but she did something she’d never done before. She asked about her. She asked about Angela.
He bristled. He wiped away the gravy and the bourbon from around his fat lips and told her to grow up. They worked together, their relationship was business. He shot back about her boss and how he’d never questioned anything about their relationship. Though she knew that if he’d bothered to turn up to any of her work functions he would know that for the past two decades her boss Ray had been in a clandestine and troublesome gay relationship with a prominent state politician.
Other diners glanced their way. Needing air, she lifted her handbag, excused herself and walked to the bathroom. It was here that she cried. She’d had such high hopes for life. In high school she’d dreamt of being a sculptor, of seeing the world and all the treasures it held. Instead, she married at 19 and became the accounts manager of a mid-sized drilling firm and lived in a nondescript suburb, too far from the city, not near enough to the beach. At least she had her kids, both of them her pride and joy. But now scattered across land and ocean with their own vocations and their own partners and worries, and with her beloved sheepdog nearing its end, she wept as she realised she was left with nothing much at all.
Then she wiped away her tears, she reapplied her mascara, her lipstick, and went out to face him and the next 30 years.
Only a strange thing happened. He wasn’t there. His jacket, his keys, his wallet were gone. A young waiter, perhaps by day an actor like her son or a medical student like her daughter, was wiping down their table. At first she felt a fleeting, giddy surge of exhilaration. Until she saw the eyes of the other diners upon her. It was then that the fury struck. This, after everything they’d been through, after all the shit he’d put her through. She’d stuck by him through bankruptcy, cancer scares, adultery, and now this. The first time she tries to stand up for herself in three decades, he pulls the pin. She never even got a card or flowers, never mind an anniversary gift.
As nonchalantly as her blue wrap dress and heels would allow, she walked on and sat at the bar. A piano man had taken to the keys and gently played ‘When I Fall in Love’. She thought of ringing him but knew that would be completely giving in. She thought of calling her son and asking how she could get one of those new cabs home, the cheap ones he always talks about, only she feared he’d ask her how the night was going and she’d be too upset to lie.
“Can I get you a drink, madam?” the barman asked, his Italian accent strong, but his English good.
“I don’t really drink,” she blushed. “I haven’t since I had children.”
“Look outside at the lights. It’s a beautiful night. Life is too short. What was it you used to enjoy?”
She thought back, a long way back. Through the mirror positioned behind the vast collection of spirits, she could see the city, now in darkness and, indeed, brilliantly magnified by the lights.
“Gin and tonic.”
He smiled, his dark eyes igniting. “That is my specialty. I make you the finest G and T there is.”
And he did. A quieter night than usual, he polished the worktop and, as she slowly unwound, he told her his name was Marco. He was from Sardinia and had been here ten years since he divorced his own childhood sweetheart. He was a painter but couldn’t quite make ends meet so he worked the bar four nights a week. For the money, mainly, but also for the view. How he loved this city’s skyline. One glance out was all he needed to handle all the world threw at him, and here he got paid to be right beside it.
And then a stranger thing happened. When her second gin arrived he asked her about herself. She couldn’t remember the last time anyone had truly been interested in her, let alone another man, a younger man, and one so handsome. Sure, she still held onto the pleasant remains of her once youthful looks, kept her hair, skin and body well maintained, but it had certainly been a while.
She told him how she married too soon to the only man she had ever slept with. She’d given up her hopes and dreams, her very self, and spent her best years pleasing his every whim. Nothing had worked out how she planned. Despite their comfortable circumstances, she had never even seen Europe.
“That is sad,” Marco said. “Nevertheless, sometimes that is life.”
“It’s been my life, anyway.”
He held her look. “I finish soon. I know a place that serves better G and Ts than here. It is never too late to start living how you want to live.”
She thought of this. She’d never been with another man before. It excited her, made her skin prickle. Yet the taxi home alone afterwards scared her. The thought of telling their family and friends, of breaking up the home, getting her own place, sharing the dog and telling the children terrified her. And it also excited her.
She reached for her handbag. She felt her phone vibrate. Eight missed calls. Her eye caught the mirror. In the reflection, among the city lights drifting slightly and silently by, she saw that old perspiring forehead, the undone tie, the empty glasses. She threw back her stool and turned.
“Alan?” she said.
“Julia,” he gasped.
“What are you…?”
She sat back down at the table, their untouched sticky date puddings before them. This had always been their favourite dessert, one of the few things they still agreed upon. Alan had been drinking, but he’d also been crying.
“I’ve been a bastard.” He broke down. In all their years, the two births, a miscarriage and the passing of both his parents, she’d never seen him cry. “I thought you’d gone,” he sobbed. “Gone for good.”
“I thought the same,” she replied, plainly.
Alan looked old. He looked tired. And despite his relative success in real estate, his family and his modest wealth, he looked beaten. Alan got up, he came over and held her. She couldn’t place the last time he’d held her.
“I’m taking holidays. I’m calling her and telling her. Cancelling the trip. We’re going to Bali, staying where we honeymooned.” He wobbled, grasping her chair to steady himself. “No, better. London, Paris, Rome, the lot, like we always said we would.”
Over his shoulder she looked out at the city, her city, and saw the lights and how they had spread over time. How much the landscape had changed. And yet, the large buildings, the overbearing river, the rolling hills in the distance and the clear sky up above seemed so familiar, seemed the same.
She got up. “I have to go to the bathroom.”
As she walked across the floor, sensing the eyes of the remaining diners, she passed the barman who studied her as he removed his apron. She didn’t turn. Feeling the room revolve for the first time that evening, she headed for the restrooms and the safety of the stall. She locked the door, positioned herself on the seat and imagined how the city lights would look when she returned.
Paul J. Laverty is a Scottish-Australian writer of film, TV and prose. Emerging from University of Melbourne with a Graduate of Diploma of Arts he wrote the first biography of Grammy award-winning band Arcade Fire and another on Beck. He has produced plays and screenplays, one of which, the semi-autobiographical Over the Sea to Skye, has been optioned by White Hot Productions (makers of The Dressmaker) and is being adapted for television. He has written numerous short stories many of which have been published in zines such as Dead Fox, Death of a Scenester and Immovable Feast). He recently completed his first novella, Man Overbored, and is seeking a publisher.
Five Questions with Paul J. Laverty:
TD: Tell us a little about this story? Where did the idea come from?
PJL: ‘The City Lights’ is loosely based on a real-life experience a family friend had back in Perth, Western Australia where I grew up. I sharpened it and came up with something I didn’t mind. Most of my ideas are borne out of real experiences. The human imagination is capable of conjuring up some wild things but there’s nothing quite as twisted as reality.
TD: Who is your greatest writing influence?
PJL: My parents aren’t writers but my father’s love of comedy and my mother’s love of a bloody good drama has helped shape me. Aside from them, Hemingway, Bukowski, Irvine Welsh, John Kennedy Toole, Hunter S Thompson, Richard Price and Daniel Clowes have created some wonderful work worthy of emulation no matter how impossible that might seem.
TD: What is your favorite place to write and why?
PJL: At my office nook when it comes to writing the final draft. Anywhere and everywhere when it comes to writing all the drafts before that. Melbourne trams and bars are a particular favourite.
TD: Favorite word?
PJL: All the best words are swear words.
TD: Do you have a favorite reading ritual?
PJL: I don’t have a car and don’t want one. Because of this, I get to read a book a week on public transport. The world would be a better place if everyone did this. Though it would probably mean I wouldn’t get a seat.