Fine Kettle Of Fish

Mark sat at the bar studying the crowd of fellow ex-students pushing 30. Most of them were aiming to be mistaken for their hopes and dreams. The rest didn’t care. Mark wondered how well his own life choices were represented. How do you show off a successful writing career? Perhaps Mark should have worn a suit jacket with elbow patches.

His left hand caressed a shot of whisky in a cheap tumbler. Writer’s Tears, single malt, neat. Every once in a while he would swirl it as if to make sure he was still there. Mark could almost feel the pain from each sip, but the true pain cannot be felt at the back of the throat.

The room was filled with the usual suspects. He spotted those he saw naked, those he wanted to see naked, those who bullied, those he bullied, those he knew little of, and those who surely did not attend Angel Pine High. And then there was Robert, who sat in the far corner drinking red wine. Robert was Mark’s only close friend in high school. They shared their unwanted lunch boxes, they fell in love with the same bands, they talked about girls and they even experimented together. Robert stood with his wife Sarah, who also happens to be one of those fellow students Mark saw naked. Can you take a guess as to why Robert’s over there and Mark is over here?

You see, Sarah and Mark shared an experience during a school camp in year 11. The school called it “out bush” or something like that. Robert couldn’t go; his mum refused to let him. Mark’s mum, however, saw it as a mini holiday for herself. So there was Mark – his best friend absent – using up his free time reading Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone. He found a hidden nook by the river on the second day of camp shrouded by hovering trees. At the precise moment Hermione walks in on Harry and Ron on the train, Sarah comes swimming over to his spot. Mark looked up from his book and she pretended not to see him. He moved his book up just enough to let his eyes wander over its top edge. She unstrung her pink bikini top from the back and he got lost in what Hermione was saying to Harry. Sarah didn’t look at him, but Mark knew that she knew he was there, watching.

Mark regretted assuming she was dared to do this by her friends. He regretted getting up and walking away when she unfurled the pink string that held up one side of her bikini bottom. And he regretted it later when Robert told Mark that Sarah was his new girlfriend. That day was midway through year 12, which Mark remembers vividly. Sarah smiled at him when Robert introduced her as his “new girl.” She seemed to be enjoying Mark’s reaction because her grin grew a little wider. The kind of grin one gives a friendly rival when they beat them at some trivial game. Eventually, Mark got up and walked away, not saying anything. Robert waited for him at the school gates after the final bell to ask what happened, and Mark could only say: “I just don’t trust her. There’s something about her that irks me.” To Robert, this was a sign of jealousy. They stopped being friends that day, and they avoided each other like the plague until the end of year 12.

Mark took another sip of his neat whisky and felt the purge that coursed down his throat. A quick thrill. In the middle of the room were Greg and Angela, who had two kids between them and no cares. At least that’s what they want everyone to believe. Greg drinks his beer like a fish and Angela keeps giving him an eye every time he grabs another. Greg was the school-yard bully. It’s amazing how time changes things. When Mark arrived at this small bar Greg was the first to shake his hand.

“It’s great to see you again,” Greg said. “Sorry if I was an arsehole to you back then. I’m a reformed man now, I swear.”

Mark smiled with Greg’s wife as if they shared a telekinetic moment of inner laughter together. It was most likely politeness, but Mark preferred to think it was laughter. You’d never pick it, but Greg sells playground equipment now. Oh, the irony.

Mark finished off his whisky and waved at the bartender for another. While he waited, he spent a moment looking over at Irene who stood at the end of the bar on the phone. She was drinking orange juice, which made sense considering the size of her belly. Mark guessed another month. Irene was his crush at high school, mostly for aesthetic reasons. Her figure was pleasing back then, with a perky chest and round hips. A teenager’s dream and a stupid young adult’s nightmare.

The baby in her belly is her third; her five-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter remain at home with a babysitter. Mark knows this because he can just overhear the conversation she is having on the phone. Apparently, her daughter is sick. And where’s her husband Shannon during all this? Well, there he is near the window drinking beer with Samantha, his high school ex. Shannon left Samantha for Irene during the final weeks of year 12. Mark wondered how Irene’s life would have turned out if Shannon stayed with Samantha. Probably managing some business while placing a raincheck on her womb.

“Here you are, sir,” said the bartender, resting the tumbler on the bar. Mark turned to collect it. He swirled it for good measure and then took a sip. He squinted his lips and breathed in some cool air to dampen the blow. As his eyes opened, Mark saw Robert standing a few inches away waiting for the bartender who was busy stacking dirty glasses in the dishwasher.

“How’s the wife?” He asked, nonchalantly.

Robert didn’t respond right away. He scrunched his eyebrows as the eyes below them, still in the direction of the bartender, darted through raging thoughts. After three seconds of glaring, Robert turned his attention to Mark, resting his right elbow on the bar and his left hand above his hip. “Why are you even here?”

Mark shrugged his shoulders. “Same reason as everyone else here: to see how we all ended up.” He paused for a quick sip. “I see you’re going well.” Before Mark came to this reunion, he had searched Facebook for answers. Where is everyone now? Well, Robert went on to university to study psychology and is now a practising marriage counsellor. Mark wonders what Sarah really thinks about this, considering she became a family lawyer. Spousal privilege must come in handy.

The bartender came strolling over, drying his hands on the tea towel that dangled from his right hip. “Hey, what can I get for you?”

Robert asked for two glasses of Merlot. When the bartender accepted his request, Robert turned to Mark again. “I guess you’re still jealous of Sarah and I.” He paused, taking in the sight of Mark perched by the bar, drinking his whisky. “You know nobody wants to talk to you here, so why did you come?”

“I told you: I’m here to see how everyone ended up. I don’t need to speak to them for that.” Mark took another sip and continued. “As for Sarah, she fills me with regret.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m surprised she hasn’t told you, being your wife.”

The bartender placed two large wine glasses on the counter and poured red wine from a half-filled bottle. Mark continued to rest his back on the edge of the bar while perusing the room. Robert watched the bartender while both his hands were splayed on the countertop. When the bartender finished pouring, Robert said thanks, the bartender went back to the dishwasher and Mark became honest.

“She stripped for me a year before she became your girlfriend and I regretted to act in her favour. It feels like she became your girlfriend to spite me.”

Robert clenched both his hands into fists as his wrists took the arching weight of his body.

“You are so lucky to have her,” Mark continued, admiring his glass of whisky. “You are both meant for each other.”

Robert released his fists and splayed both hands on the bar again. He then looked at Mark and said: “I wish we never became friends.” He left without picking up his wine glasses. Such a waste. Mark almost took pity on the bartender but then realised he gets paid to wash dishes.

He turned his attention to Robert as he walked back to Sarah empty-handed. Mark was finally glad to have that weight off his chest. But he knew that wasn’t the only reason he was here.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to not care when I screw it all up. Mark pondered over this thought and let out a single mumbled laugh. He took another sip of whisky and watched as he rested the glass on the bar. When he turned back he saw Sarah hovering over a table on the other side of the room, picking at food platters on a table. Robert was missing, possibly heading to the bathroom. This was his chance.

Mark waved for the bartender for the last time and asked for one more. “For the road,” he mouthed. A funny expression if you think about it; a road is unworthy of alcohol. He downed his current whisky and waited for the fresh nip, then he collected the refilled glass and stood up. He marched over towards Sarah. He pushed past Stacey who had the brains to top the whole state in the year 12 exams and yet only found meaning in becoming a stay-at-home mother when she turned 20. He sidestepped by the emo kid who is now an out gay man working as an accountant while dressing up as a drag queen on the odd occasion. And when he reached a cheese board, laden with blocks of different cheeses, bowls of differing crackers and mismatched cheese knives, he ignored it all and focused on Sarah. She was grazing over the charcuterie board, popping black olives as if they were gummy bears. She looked up at him, smiled and collected a sliver of spiced ham.

“Why did you do that?” he said.

“Do what?” she asked. Her eyes studied the spiced ham in her hands as if trying to find the perfect spot to bite.

“You know… that time on school camp?”

“Oh, that?” She pretended to blush while flashing him with a sly smile. “I wanted to see how you’d react. I was just having fun.” She paused and then said: “I’m sorry it ended your friendship.”

Mark picked up a cracker off the cheese board and tossed it in his mouth. He didn’t know how to respond. He chewed and swallowed, mulling over Sarah’s surrealistic demeanour.

“It could have been fun if you stayed,” Sarah continued.

“How so?”

“You’re a writer, use your imagination.” Sarah smiled that smile again.

“I can see why Robert is so into you,” Mark said, picking out a black olive.

“Oh, you do? Do tell.”

“Because you’re good looking and know how to use it to your advantage.”

Sarah grinned. “Did you stroll this far from the bar to tell me that?”

“I was hoping to rekindle the flame that never burned.”

“Things change, Mark. You of all people should know that.” Mark saw her look over his shoulder and he swiftly returned to the cheese board to cut a slice of the camembert. “It’s nice seeing you again,” she said softly as she watched her husband come back from the bathroom.

“Let’s go,” said Robert to his wife. Mark scraped the slice of camembert onto the cracker, slipped it into his mouth and picked up his whisky. He turned to watch them leave while he munched his ad lib hors d’oeuvre.

As they slowly exited the room, he raised his glass and nodded towards the door. “To the happily married couple,” he said under his breath. He then lowered his glass and took in the sight of the room around him. It was drowning in mediocrity. There was a feeling of transience as if the inevitable ending was silently welcomed by all. This was the perfect moment.

“Excuse me my fellow ex-students of Angel Pine High,” Mark said, beaming his voice across the room. Everyone stopped their discussions to look at him. “I’d like to propose a toast.”

The room wavered in confusion.

“Please,” he added, swishing his glass in front of him.

“By now I hope you all have realised that there is no such thing as a perfect life. I guarantee that many of you tonight thought at least one of us did. The perfect job, the perfect car, the perfect children. Perfection only happens under total control, which life doesn’t offer. Life with its many lemons. We are all under its erratic supervision and that’s what makes it exciting.

“You may not know this, but I’m recovering alcoholic thanks to the stress of my early writing career. I drink with you all today, not in weakness, but in strength over an addiction that has depressed me for so long. I’m telling you this because I want you to know that no matter how imperfect your life is, you’re not the only one. We are all imperfect and that is beautiful.”

Mark raised his glass and his audience followed suit, their confusion being replaced by indifference.

“May we all learn to enjoy our imperfect lives, knowing that perfection is impossible. May we learn to deal with the lemons life throws at us, knowing our control is limited. And may we learn to see life as a beautiful journey, knowing we are all the same in the end.

“Cheers,” he finished, downing his glass in a single gulp with a group of people he won’t see for another 10 years.

Feature image: Serge Esteve on Unsplash

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