It was a bar like any other bar, though it wasn’t as crowded as they get during the weekends.
Richard was there, lulling over his whiskey and feeling like shit. He was tired, not physically tired, but mentally. He took the glass to his lips and swallowed the burning liquid, sucking it to the last drop. A businessman on a business trip like so many before him.
The bartender raised his eyebrows at Richard, waiting, until the latter nodded for him to fill the glass once more.
“Feeling lonely tonight?” A tall blonde slid to the bar stool next to his and flashed a smile.
He had seen her up on the stage dancing some minutes before. She was pretty and graceful, yet he sat with his back to the stage and preferred to sink his sight in the vastness of golden fluid inside his hands.
“No.” A hiss would have been more accurate.
The young dancer snorted at him and scurried away.
“Now, now, Jacky, your number is about to start.” A man’s voice came from behind. “Agh. What to do with these young girls?”
The man it came from, a guy Richard calculated was in his fifties, just like him, sat on the bar stool Jacky had vacated, facing the stage. Leaned back, his arms stretched on the bar behind him, he seemed to be pretty comfortable.
Richard gave a chuckle, not wanting to be rude. The man gave out a gasp when Jacky started dancing again. This time Richard was looking.
“Can I get you anything, Ralph?” The bartender asked the man.
“No.” Right after saying that he flinched, Jacky had missed a step. “Make it a Gin and Tonic. I can tell this won’t be a good night. That girl will ruin me and my business.”
“Her?” Richard nodded Jacky’s way.
“Yes, her, Jacky. She can’t give two steps without tripping. I can manage stilettos better than her.”
Richard choked on his whiskey. “Excuse me?”
“I’m kidding. I’ve owned this place for twenty years and have never seen a disaster quite like her. Fucking economic crisis.”
“You own this place?”
“Yes.” Richard’s skepticism took Ralph by surprise. “Inherited it from my father. It has seen better days, I can assure you that. Lately it’s been a struggle to make it to the end of the month. Bar by night, dance school by day. Ralph Donovan at your service, bar owner, dance instructor.” He stretched out and inviting hand.
“Richard Wayne, non-interesting businessman.” He shook it with what could be called a smile.
“Is that empty?” Ralph pointed at Richard’s glass which was, in fact, empty. “Sean! A whiskey here for Mr. Wayne.” He leaped to his feet. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to put an end to this.”
Ralph strode to the stage, stopped the music, and informed Jacky that, since that very moment, she no longer worked there. The girl did what they all do, she got angry, then begged, then got angry again, then she did the unthinkable, at least for Richard it was.
She called Ralph a ‘faggot’.
Everyone went silent except for Jacky’s panting.
Ralph stood there like a freeze frame, arms crossed over his chest, his lips pressed into a thin line. The rest of the dancers dared not to approach him, so they took off through the back of the stage.
“You have five seconds to disappear from my presence or not even God will forgive what I will do to you, you little scoundrel.”
The girl’s eyes filled with rabid tears, her body trembled all over. She ran away to the dressing rooms without considering an apology.
Ralph remained there, standing, a long sigh escaped his chest before he turned to the bartender.
“Early closing, Sean.” It sounded more like a grunt.
Sean hastened to tell everyone to finish their drinks while Ralph went back to his bar stool next to Richard and stared into his gin and tonic.
After a moment of silence, during which they sat awkwardly next to each other, Richard stirred on his seat.
“I am sorry you had to witness that.” Ralph’s voice traveled slowly, as if echoing inside his glass before heading Richard’s way. “You can stay for another drink if you want to. Even after everyone’s gone there’s inventorying, cleaning…”
“Maybe we can have them somewhere else.” It was the weirdest thing for Richard to say, not that he wasn’t saying it from the heart.
“I can manage, boss.” Sean was eavesdropping, rubbing an inconspicuous cloth on the bar. “Go out and get some air. You’ve been here all day.”
“I’m staying at a hotel a block away from here.” Richard said to Ralph’s hunched back. “There’s this small bar at the lobby, it seems nice and quiet.”
Ralph raised his eyes to meet Sean’s and, after getting a wink, turned to Richard.
“I’ll get my coat.”
Both men strolled to the hotel dressed in black coats, sharing jokes, laughing.
The hotel bar was small, covered under a blur of smoke, and the jazz music playing on the jukebox gave signs of having been played too many times.
Ralph seemed to be recovering the color on his face already.
“People tend to have the wrong impression about me. I’ve been going through the train wreck of a divorce while my business is falling apart before my eyes.” Richard started spilling his truths at Ralph, who listened attentively.
“Times are rough, my friend.” Ralph took his beer to his lips, glancing at the rest of the patrons as they left.
The song playing on the jukebox ended and Ralph was quick to get to it, take some quarters from his pocket, and select a song. Richard watched from his seat as Ralph leaned over the jukebox, his foot tapping on the floor to the beat of the song.
“I…” Richard’s voice startled Ralph, he didn’t know he was standing behind him. “I’m not much of a dancer, but being no one else here, I thought…”
“That is very nice of you, but don’t worry. I’m fine. It’s something one doesn’t get used to, not even with time, but I’m okay.”
“Oh, come on! I never, ever, dance. Do you have any idea how much courage it took for me to get up and ask you to dance?”
Ralph chuckled, a smile breaking through the darkness of the place.
They danced, well, Richard followed Ralph’s lead until it looked as if they were dancing. However, his mind was somewhere far, where the lines drawn by society faded, taking everything he thought he was with them. He was in a land where there was no she, or he, just us. Where Ralph’s hand felt just right and he could smile even through the fog. A place he hadn’t been to before.
Ralph was good, he was a good dancer, a good partner. Exactly what Richard needed to breathe better and unwind to the melody that was now a distant whisper. Because nothing else existed but them.
When the song was over, their lips found each other’s and it was perfect. A hint of beer that mixed so well with the whiskey and the gin, like musk and leather.
As if by instinct, Ralph stepped back, his eyes suddenly resembling the famous deer in the headlights cliché.
“I’m sorry.” He started to apologize. “I got carried away.”
“No, no, you didn’t.”
“I’ve embarrassed you. I know you are not…”
“It was perfect. To the point of wanting to thank you for it.”
That brought laughter to both men, who stared at each other, each one holding back some invisible object.
“It’s late. I should go.” Ralph turned on his heels and went for his coat, but Richard intercepted him midway.
“It doesn’t have the end here.”
“I’m not up for experiments.” Ralph slid his coat on, gracefully rearranging its collar.
“Neither am I.” Richard took his coat from the rack, threw it over his arm and strode to the elevator.
Ralph stood there, stunned, and, at the last moment, he rushed to stop the elevator door from closing.