The band was playing on a small riser in one corner but had faded from existence to become a feeling. He tasted the combined sweat of everyone. Oxytocin flooded his body. It was the fourth time that month that Shinichiro Yakimura had fallen in love but this time was different because this time he was going to speak up and avoid having to deal with the self-loathing that would come if he didn’t with its inevitable spiral into darkness that always allowed the voice in his head to lose control and allow his third face to rip apart everything he had built with Hana, their life, the house, the money, the safety, the silence, the calm. He had three faces, and he had just revealed his second.
Watashi wa onaka ga suita. The words exploded into his mind. He hadn’t spoken Japanese for a long time. Memories crashed into his mind of his mother dying, her last words and her betrayal and the void it made, a void that ate away at him day after day. The smell of the bar turned into the copper smell of the cabin on that ship. The way the smell of her blood became everything. And now the bar was a small cabin. And he was a little boy. And he knew what he was doing. He had knowingly opened the door. Each time was the same. Regret came the same instant he felt the opening. It never stayed long. A fleeting dance with sanity. Here and then gone.
He turned his attention back to the girl. Her arms. Her neck. Her lips. And the feeling came back. He felt the muscles in his back tighten and he gained a couple of inches. The air grew hotter.
His hand began to involuntarily squeeze the tumbler as he watched the solitary cube of ice melt. The rational part of his mind, the part that had built everything with Hana, the part that had kept him alive and functioning for so many years made him let go of the glass and step away from the bar. Movement was good. Movement broke through the voice. He stepped between bodies and began hunting again.
It had been decades since the days he had spent lounging on the stone steps outside St Paul’s with Gus, talking about Gus’ hypothetical stock market. But Shinichiro had turned it into reality. The young boy had taken the crazy old Belarussian’s refrains of market rules and mass biases and built a small empire. Saving every cent he earned he turned poverty on its head and now had a city at his fingertips instead of under them. First, he began by trading small positions over the phone to a broker, always keeping Gus’s rules in mind, the most important of which had been drummed into him by Gus that greed was the beginning of the end. Fear stopped you winning and greed killed gains. Another Gussian mantra. In time his confidence grew. Sometimes mistress market took him down a peg or two but more often than not he grew his wealth. It gave him a purpose and so long as he considered the numbers it calmed his mind. Sometimes in the cold mornings before the office worker bees began trudging past him he would slip into a flurry of emotional swings which, for the most part he hid well. Alcohol was his Achilles heel. It always was. He progressed from small conservative trades to betting big. Early winning streaks took him from a doorway to a rented windowless basement studio apartment that came with an infestation of slugs that left silver trails across the old grey carpet that had been glued to the stone floor. Then he bought his first house. Soon after, Hana moved in. If he held onto the numbers he could manage.
Shinichiro shifted on his bar stool to look the girl in the eyes. She wasn’t looking at him but his body faced her. She was facing the bar with something troubling on her mind. For the first time in a long time his second face smiled. He stepped to the right and positioned himself between her and the bar. Queen’s knight to bishop four. Check. Smile. Wait. He allowed his head to loll a few degrees towards the right, slightly backwards to the bar, a gesture so subtle it would confirm if she was the one. She held his eyes and they stayed that way for more than was comfortable for her. She was younger than he, probably by nearly twenty years. Certainly more than fifteen. At the age of forty-two he did not feel middle aged. He felt like a capable boy. A well-used twenty-something.
“Are you okay?” she seemed conflicted; concerned and yet vexed and smiling because she already knew the answer but didn’t know how else to break the silence. In that moment she surrendered. Shinichiro knew it. He felt the rush of adrenaline. The girl was oblivious and smiled still, her fingers combing her hair as she let her head fall slightly to one side to match his.
Then she touched him. Just three fingertips of one hand and ever so light that it could have been missed but he felt the flush of warmth course through his body as she drew her hand back. His nipples tingled. He smiled. It was an eye-smile and she returned his happiness by turning to face him completely. The three other young women she was with carried on their conversation as if she’d never been a part of it.
“I’m not sure,” he said.
She smiled deeper, with her eyes.
Shinichiro felt his heart beating all over his body. He felt like he was pulsating.
The cacophony of the bar drowned out their words. They raised their voices to just under a shout. The noise gave Shinichiro a comfort like the feeling of being under a warm blanket on a soft bed on a winter morning. He knew he had to leave and would delay it as much as possible. He hated loud, busy spaces. The confusion and noise hurt him. Alcohol mollified the pain, still it would be a short-lived relief.
The bar was one of the many anonymous establishments in Melbourne. The only mark it made on Lonsdale Street was two insignificant tables on the kerbside and an oversized oak door with black studs. Ten years prior, the inside would have been filled with smoke, grizzled men, and hardened drinkers. Instead, now, it was filled with CEOs of digital start-ups drinking whiskey from Japan that cost more for a measure than the bar's old clientele could earn in a day.
For a moment Shinichiro felt an uneasy nausea. He looked around the patronage of the bar. Everyone was so concerned with themselves. Wrapped in their own collective ego bubbles that he started to become invisible. People were deep in conversation but the words were flaccid. The air sagged with melancholy that few could feel. It drove deep into Shinichiro. He turned back to the girl beside him and watched her closer.
She smiled again. The smile had waned as his wave of nausea washed through him but when he looked at her she smiled. He was close. So close. Sweat ran in two rivulets down the small of his back, one chasing the other.
The girl took a choreographed drink. Her poison was gin, administered via a cocktail. The light in the bar caught the glass and the blue hue gave the secret away. A gimlet, Shinichiro thought as he watched her neck arch upwards. Her pale skin showed its dappling of thin down-like hairs. He liked the velvet appearance of her skin. Her lips were thin and agile. A twist of lemon, half bitten. She likes different. Acerbic.
She smiled at him and plucked the ice cube from his tumbler and crunched it with her molars.
“You shouldn’t do that. It’s bad for your teeth.”
He watched her.
She didn’t drop his eyes as she spoke, “Really.” It wasn’t a question.
He liked her more. She was a complex game. He took a drink. Malt whiskey. Japanese.
“So they say.”
He put his empty glass next to hers on the bar between them. A part of him, the part that was struggling to break through, didn’t recall walking back to the bar. The struggle died. Shinichiro felt complete as he leaned towards her slightly, showing vulnerable confidence. The move was tried and tested. Shinichiro knew it said: ‘this is my safe space and I rarely leave it, but I will for you’.
She mirrored him and leaned in, propping herself on her left arm. Her hand gripped the edge of her stool for support.
Shinichiro let his eyes travel down from her bare shoulder, over the line of her tricep as it curved like a French masterpiece, down her forearm to rest on the ridges of her hand. The skin lay over her hand with a supple beauty that he liked. She was toned. Athletic.
He smiled again. His dark eyes widened to let her inside, but not too far inside. She skipped in.
“I’m going to have one last drink. I like the seventeen-year-old Hibiki. You should try it.”
“I don’t like whiskey,’ she said.
That pleased Shinichiro. She had noticed his drink too. Even in the low light of the bar. Against a dark wooden counter. She was bright, he thought. Alert.
“You’re missing out.” Shinichiro waved to the barman for two more drinks, circling his index finger over their glasses. He turned back to her, “You really should try it. It’s not harsh. It has a sweetness. Like fruit. And chocolate.”
She smiled, entranced by Shinichiro, his wisdom, his experience, drawing her in deeper. Her hand moved to his left thigh as the barman put down two new drinks and took away Shinichiro’s empty glass without interrupting. Her lips were close to Shinichiro’s ear when she whispered, “Is it expensive?”
He took a sip, pulling away from her a little.
“Yes. Very. More than gin. Gin is everywhere. You have to hunt out the best whiskey. This is only available in three bars in Australia. I own one of them.” He waited, careful to rein in the ego. “It isn’t this one. This one is out of my league.”
He put the glass down exactly where the barman had, right beside her gin, before he slid it towards him in a purposeful move. She reached up, took it and tasted it. More than a sip. A show of defiance. Shinichiro smiled. He had won the game. She licked the whiskey from her top lip.
She followed his instruction.
Shinichiro stepped back off his barstool and straightened his shirt then put down a credit card on the bar. The barman took it without hesitation, only pausing to make the briefest eye contact with Shinichiro, who nodded at the other girls. The barman nodded almost imperceptibly and charged his account. Shinichiro tapped in his PIN number, leaning in front of the girl as he did.
“I know three places in Melbourne that have the best whiskey. One is north of here; the other is a short ride away and overlooks the Yarra. Where would you like to go?”
The girl curved her back as she put the empty glass on the bar. She looked over her shoulder at Shinichiro, smiled and said, “The second.”
Shinichiro stepped back and offered a hand to the lady.
They stepped out into the damp night. The city lights danced in reflections on the wet pavement. Shinichiro stepped out into the flow of the traffic, waited for the right time, raised his hand and watched as the taxi stopped exactly where he wanted. She asked him the name of the place they were going to. He paused to let her get into the back seat before he replied. She hadn’t once looked at her friends or said goodbye.
At the bar the barman was leaning over to the group, telling the closest that the man in the black shirt had left with their friend and had just settled their tab. The confusion and delight rippled through them.
She wrapped her arm inside his, putting her hand in his, as they stepped into the street unnoticed. His third face smiled at the night. Her friends would never see her again.
“We’re going to my place. You should have said goodbye to your friends.”
She smiled at the night but it didn’t smile back.