CC Life Nightwriters

Cuba Libre

By Ann Hillesland

I  was on my third drink when Lara walked into the bar, her blond hair a sunset glow in the reddish lights. I swiveled so she wouldn’t see me. “Of all the gin joints in all the world,” I mimicked Bogart into the bar mirror. Instead of looking tough, I looked like I’d eaten a lemon.

“Mark?”

I turned, my goofy expression frozen. “Lara!” I faked surprise. It sounded fake too, adding to the embarrassment washing through me. My brain felt like a flooded engine as she slid onto the next barstool, her long green dress swinging against my jeans. She reminded me of an early fall leaf, cool green and yellow shot through with fire.

“Meeting someone?” I asked.

“No, I was down the street watching a friend’s string quartet premiere a new piece. Very modern. I need a drink after sitting through it.”

“I know the feeling.” In the three months we’d dated, I’d tried hard to live up to her, a Yale grad who played viola in the symphony. I acted enthusiastic about Ravel. I never asked her to see a Seth Rogan movie. I never ate ribs in front of her. I lived a whole shadow life trying to keep her, but she left anyway.

I knew it had been hopeless, but after she left my life was emptier than before she came. One evening I wandered into this bar and stayed.

As the bartender approached us, I explained the bar’s ground rules. “Don’t order,” I whispered. “He’ll serve you whatever drink he thinks is right for you.”

“You sound like a regular.”

“I’m here most nights,” I replied before I thought about how pathetic I sounded.

“What are you drinking?” she asked.

“Cuba Libre.”

“Sounds sophisticated.”

“It’s really just a fancy name for a rum and Coke.”

The bartender studied Lara. He had gray hair and forearms like a prizefighter’s. His red clip-on bow tie was knocked crooked from hours of serving drinks. “Friend of yours, Mark?”

“Yeah, but don’t judge her by that. She’s usually smarter.”

The bartender turned to his bottles, producing the familiar clatter. After Lara left, I’d numbly downed every heavy, dark Guinness the bartender handed me until one night he’d examined me as if for the first time before reaching for a glass. He’d slapped a drink on the bar, proclaiming, “Cuba Libre.” And for me it was liberation, moving on from depressed pain to a new life, directionless but honest about my pretenses.

He sloshed liquid from a bottle. I hoped he wasn’t making a strawberry daiquiri. A drink like that would be an insult to a woman like Lara. She didn’t deserve it, though she’d once had the lack of judgment to fall for me.

He loomed up, holding a pale yellow drink. “Greyhound,” he said.

“Perfect,” I said.

“What, I remind you of buses? Of the dog races?”

“No. It’s like you. Lean, classy. Thoroughbred.” And there I sat, paunchy and unprotected before her.

“Ha! Got you fooled.” She slid her hand around the slim highball glass. “Well, here’s to us, the Greyhound and the Fancy-Name-For-A-Rum-And-Coke.”

I reached for my drink. Instead, she pushed her glass towards me and lifted mine herself. The dark, fizzing cocktail looked natural in her hand, making me wonder if she’d been living a shadow life for me too. Or maybe I had just assumed she was someone she wasn’t. As we lifted our drinks, I stared at her face, both familiar and surprising. The vodka and grapefruit juice was cool and refreshing, like the yellow-tinted air just at dawn.

Ann Hillesland’s work has been published in many literary journals, including Fourth Genre, Sou’wester, Bayou, The Laurel Review, Corium, and SmokeLong Quarterly. She is a graduate of the MFA program at Queen’s University of Charlotte. Ann is a member of SLO NightWriters, for writers at all levels in all genres; find them online at slonightwriters.org.