Last Smile

by Yash Seyedbagheri

When one glass of Merlot is depleted, reality gapes through the empty glass. There’s a sea of bills, empty apartments, ketchup-stained fridges, neighbors without faces and names, parties to which I’m not privy, childhood nicknames and sisterly I-love-yous thousands of miles away. All that on top of papers to grade, workshops to prepare for. But that’s all for next week anyway.

A second glass goes fast too. I try to take small swigs, but after weeks of Diet Coke, onions, TV dinners, and Triscuit rip-offs, sweetness rushes down my throat like a freight train. One swig, two swig, three swigs, big swig.

So I order two more glasses at the same time. A Merlot and a peachy Moscato, for the lightness. The Merlot’s great, but by the second glass, a certain bitterness has risen to the top. My sister Nan’s right. Darker wines do tend to be fucking depressing. She’d tease me about this, call me her little boozer and I almost want to cry.

The bartender, who wears a lavender button-down shirt and looks disturbingly like bearded-era Hemingway, offers a smile. It’s knowing, almost sad, but without words. His eyes hold the weight of observation and I can only imagine the stories he has heard, many far wilder. Dissolved marriages, fellow students even more stressed. Drunk parents. He pours the glasses with methodical precision, the glugging an almost soothing sound. Even pours them all the way to the top, bottle held with confidence, tipped, but never in danger of falling. Then he hands them to me with a flourish. No questions still. I smile and thank him with a little too much fervency.

I take the longest sips, lean back in the green booth, ripped at the seams in a few places. Let the sounds sink into me. With each crash of pool balls, each gale of laughter from adjacent booths, friends shoving and stumbling, even the TV over the counter showing The Big Lebowski, I feel a smile snaking out, crooked, but certainly a smile. I try to hold onto it, steal snatches of people’s stories. I snatch stories of the worst hangovers and tests they’re dreading and their favorite sativa strains, sex stories, stories about their favorite episodes of Barry or Succession. I smile, imagine bodies hunched over tables, the intimacy of it, the smells that rise, weed, sweat, cheesy colognes. My booth smells like the ghosts of Camels past and I almost picture another me in this booth, someone here alone on a Friday night. But I don’t want to think of all this now.

I’m tempted to text Nan, but it’s late. She’s got enough on her plate as a history teacher anyway. She’ll also worry if I text this late too, even if she disguises it as a joke. She knows me too well. I’ll text her tomorrow.

Girls in tight shorts and tank tops stream in. Guys in baggy sweatpants stake claims at the counter and move about the crowded floors with its hilarious purple and brown carpeting. I nod and smile, although most keep moving, footsteps a mixture of thump, thump, thumps and clickety-clacks. A few precise clack, clack, clacks. I do, however, get one or two nods, a murmured how-ya-doin’, a what’s up dude, and store them like gems. An indescribable energy rising, I even drum the table to the beat of the jukebox, playing The Eagles, Mary J. Blige, Salt-N-Pepa, The Beatles even. 

Of course, the night deepens, the moon disappears, and people start dispersing one by one, slinking out the doors into the cold air. Then they disperse in larger droves, seas of tank tops and colorful shirts enveloped by the night, walking to cars and cabs, to places unseen. The booths around me become elegant, empty, naked oak, stains and blemishes highlighted. The room takes on a largeness, emptied out, something a bit too heavy. 

I try to order one more glass. Consider playing something on the jukebox. But they’re starting to clean up and they wipe everything away with force, the glasses and smiles carted off. I rise, look for the smiles, try to speak, but they’re lost in the dimming lights, the steel glare of the stars, the seconds hand of the clock counting down, and the growing shadows, long and deep.

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Yash Seyedbagheri is a graduate of Colorado State University’s MFA fiction program. His stories, “Soon,” “How To Be A Good Episcopalian,” and “Tales From A Communion Line,” were nominated for Pushcarts. Yash’s work has been published in The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Write City Magazine, and Ariel Chart, among others.

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