I am sitting on the bench outside Bloody Mary’s when Andrew comes outside to see me.
“Hey,” he says, offering me his hand. “We’re going to Cleo’s.”
“Ugh. Why are we going to Cleo’s?”
“Because I want you to meet my friends.”
I raise my eyebrow.
“You want me to meet your friends?” I ask. “Wow. First your mom, then your mentor, and now your friends. What’s next? Your kids?”
Andrew gives me a sneaky little smile.
“Come on. We’re going to Cleo’s.”
“Alright, fine. We’ll go to Cleo’s, but I just want you to know that I never would’ve given it a second chance if you hadn’t spent so much time convincing me.”
“Do you think they’ll like me?”
“Of course they’ll like you. I like you.”
We walk over to Cleo’s together, where we find Jaimie sitting with three of the bartenders from Cleo’s. The first is a writer named Radcliff. The second is the heir to a vast family fortune named Brian. The third is an adamant hater of pants named Fred. All of them are staring at me with odd expressions on their faces.
“Hey guys,” says Andrew. “Though you all vaguely know each other already, I would like to officially introduce you to Betsey Horton, Writer Extraordinaire. I’m helping her write her novel, both out of the kindness of my heart and as a direct result of my raging egomania. Betsey, these are my friends. My real friends. Not the sort of ‘friends’ who you meet around town all the time.”
“So not the social-climbing snakes,” I reply flatly.
Andrew snorts to himself as his friends continue to stare at me. They order their drinks and sit down together at a table. Andrew doesn’t say anything. He just watches the scene unfold.
“So Radcliff,” I say cheerfully. “I heard you went to Oxford. Is that true?”
“Yes,” Radcliff answers shortly. He doesn’t say anything else. He just stares at me with a strange look in his eyes. I decide to fill in the awkward silence.
“And I read on Twitter that you just recently published your fourth book?”
“But it’s published under a different name?”
“What’s the name?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
“Well why not? I want to read your books. You live in Vermillion. I would pay so much money to read whatever it is you have to say.”
Radcliff stares at me in silence for a long time. Finally, he speaks.
“Maybe one day.”
“Well, let me know if you ever want to write. I was trying to start a writer’s group for people under age 60 here in town, but nobody wanted to join. So… consider this an invitation to my gangster nation.”
Radcliff takes a gulp of his Stoli and gets quiet again.
“Just one last question, Radcliff.”
“Do you ever just look around and think to yourself, ‘All of this is just one big cosmic joke?'”
“Most of the time, yes. Out of all the infinite possibilities for life on Earth, I was born to be this. A great cosmic joke indeed.”
Radcliff promptly finishes his Stoli and gets up to pour himself another one. I decide to move on to Fred.
“So Fred,” I say. “I read on Twitter that you have a deeply passionate hatred for pants. Would you care to explain that point further?”
“As a matter of fact, I would,” says Fred. “I just hate pants. They’re oppressive in pretty much every single way. I don’t like the length or the way they fit. Ever. They make my junk feel uncomfortable and there’s never enough pockets. I’d rather wear cargo shorts instead.”
“Oh boy. I didn’t realize I was about to set off a rant from someone stanning for my least favourite article of clothing ever.”
“Whatever! Cargo shorts are the greatest. They’re comfortable, they have pockets, and I can put all of my shit in them. They’re practical. I can wear them anywhere at any time. I wish I could just wear them all day everyday for the rest of my life. Either that, or wear nothing at all. Whichever works. Yeah, so, that’s how I feel about that.”
“Fascinating,” I say dryly. Fred folds his arms and stares at me in judgmental silence. I decide to ask him something else to keep the conversation moving. “And… uh… I also read on Twitter that you don’t ‘get’ Drake?”
“I really don’t.”
“I just don’t. Like, is he a rapper or a singer? Why is he acting? What’s with the weird dancing in the Hotline Bling video? I guess I just can’t understand what it is about that guy that makes him so popular.”
I shrug my shoulders.
“That’s fair, I guess. You like other rap music though, right?”
“Some of it, yeah.”
“So there’s hope you can someday learn to understand?”
“Well, I just so happen to be a really big fan of Drake. That’s why I’m going to take a moment to mansplain to you why you should like Drake. Are you ready?”
Fred glances over at Andrew and gives him a Look. Andrew nods his head encouragingly.
“You asked, ‘What is Drake?’ and the answer is ‘Drake is just Drake.’ He’s a rapper AND a singer AND an actor AND an artist, all at once. In a word? Sensitive. Strong. Secure. Secure enough in his manhood that he doesn’t have to put on the false front of toxic masculinity pushed by hip-hop culture. He treats women with respect. In fact, there’s nothing he loves more than helping out a woman in need. Whether it’s giving her extra cash to pay for school while she’s dancing on the pole, or singing about how beautiful all women are, that man is here for the ladies. He works hard to provide us with the support we need as women. Why? Because he was raised by a wonderful, strong woman who encouraged him to follow his dreams and be everything he could ever be. He’s just out there looking for that special someone he can someday give his collection of Birkin bags to. It’s just hard because everyone in the industry is so fake, and people try to use him all the time. But he stays real in spite of it all and works hard to keep producing amazing art that all of can appreciate and enjoy. That’s why I like him. The End.”
Fred stares at me for a long time before giving Andrew the side-eye again. Andrew shrugs again and gives him a little smile.
“Has anybody ever told you you’re really opinionated?” Fred asks.
“Every single day. I don’t really give a fuck. It’s my job to have opinions. I’m a writer.”
I roll my eyes at him and move on to Brian.
“So… how ya been?” I ask.
“Pretty good,” Brian says. “Same old, same old. Nothing ever changes. Everything stays the same.”
We both sit there in awkward silence again. There’s so much awkward silence at this table. I look over at Andrew worriedly. He puts his hand on my back to reassure me.
“Uhhh…” I stammer. “Well… I just wanted you to know that I thought you were pretty cool when we hung out that one time. I was just going through a lot in my life and I wasn’t dating anybody at the time. I’m happy you found someone who can give you the kind of relationship you deserve.”
Brian smiles at me.
“Thank you, Betsey. I really appreciate you saying that to me.”
Last but not least, I turn to Jaimie.
“You still haven’t opened that blender, have you?” I ask.
Jaimie looks taken aback for a moment and then laughs.
“No,” he admits with a huge grin on his face. “It’s still sitting in a box on my counter top.”
“I told you you should’ve gone with the fire pit.”
“But I wanted the cool one with the Miller logo on it.”
“Dude, it was like $200! You could’ve gotten a basic one for free! I don’t understand that for the life of me. You have the perfect set-up in your backyard. All you need is a string of lights, some tiki torches, a hottie toddy, a warm blanket, a great book, and you are good to go for the night.”
“I don’t drink liquor,” he says seriously. “I only drink Miller products because I’m loyal to the company I work for.”
I stare at him in disbelief.
“You seriously need to loosen up, dude. Like, seriously.”
The awkward silence returns to the table as the conversation tapers off. Andrew looks around and finally drums his hands on the table.
“Okay!” he says cheerfully. “Good meeting, good meeting. You guys wanna play some shuffleboard?”
“I’d like to opt out, please,” I reply. “I just want to sit at the bar, get drunk, and watch basketball. You guys go play your little game and talk about me.”
I get up from the table, order another Blue Moon with orange juice, and take a seat at the bar. Andrew gets up and goes into the back room. His friends follow him loyally. They get out their shuffleboard gear and start playing.
“So?” Andrew prompts. “What do you think?”
All of them glance at each other in silence. Finally, Radcliff speaks up.
“I think she’s just a writer,” he says decidedly. “She has the right to say whatever she wants to say. If people wanted her to write nicely about them, they would’ve behaved better. Trust me, I would know.”
“Yeah,” says Fred sarcastically. “We know you know. We all read your little revenge book too. We know how you writers are.”
“They deserved it,” Radcliff snaps. “I have no regrets.”
Andrew smiles to himself.
“What do you think, Fred?” he asks.
“She’s very opinionated,” says Fred. “I don’t necessarily admire that quality in women, but I do admire it in men. Either way, she made an interesting point about Drake. I never thought about him that way.”
“Well, you are a guy.”
“What about you, Brian?” asks Andrew.
Brian looks down at the floor sadly.
“Honestly… I was really looking forward to that second date. She’s not as bad as everyone says she is. She’s just been through a lot. She’s smart, funny, and full of interesting stories. I respect her for being honest and up-front with me, even if it did disappoint me at the time.”
Andrew’s eyes sparkle at Brian. Finally, he turns to Jaimie.
Jaimie shakes his head and chuckles at himself.
“Maybe she’s right,” he says. “Maybe I should’ve gotten the fire pit.”
Andrew bursts into laughter.
“I knew she wasn’t that bad,” he says triumphantly. “I knew it. I knew it. It’s those damn de la Salles! They can hold a grudge like nobody’s business. Thanks guys. I really feel validated about my decision to take over her novel now. Anybody want a drink?”
They all raise their glasses and nod. Andrew leaves the room and goes back to the bar where I’m sitting. He takes a seat next to me.
“They all hate me, don’t they? I knew it. They hate me. Everyone hates me. Nothing I do is ever good enough for anybody. I just want you to know I tried my best. And I didn’t even talk about myself. I asked them questions. I did it right this time. I know I did.”
“No,” he says shortly. “They don’t hate you at all. Just be a little nicer to Cleo’s in your book. They work hard to suck!”
I laugh in spite of myself.
“Don’t worry,” he says. “We have a friendly rivalry going. It’s okay for me to say they suck. It’s just not okay when you say it.”
“They don’t really suck. I’d just rather be at Bloody Mary’s Bar.”
“I’m gonna buy that t-shirt when you make it.”
Our conversation is cut short as Andrew’s phone starts going off. His eyes glaze over as he reads the text on his phone.
“I have to go,” he says, getting out of his chair. “It’s time.”
I look up at him and smile sadly.
“How do you feel?”
“Nervous. Excited. Unsure.”
“Don’t worry. You’ll be great. You always are.”
“Thank you, Betsey.”
He winks at me before he grabs his coat and runs out the door. A few minutes later, his friends come in from the back room and find me sitting alone at the bar.
“Where did he go?” asks Fred.
“To take care of his responsibilities,” I answer sadly, looking down at the ground.
Andrew’s friends exchange a look. For the first time, they finally understand what all of this is really about. It’s not crazy. It’s not delusional. It’s not psychotic. It’s just… love. A love that can never be anywhere but on the page.
Finally, Brian reaches out and pats me on the shoulder.
“Do you want a shot of Icehole?” he asks.
“I need all the shots of Icehole. Please ply me with shots of Icehole until I fall off my high heels on the sidewalk like I did my junior year of college.”
Andrew’s friends laugh in spite of themselves.
“Coming right up!”
And that’s the story of how I learned to stop worrying and love Cleo’s Bar.