Amid the incessant Christmas tunes and gaudy multicolored lights, Helen Haliday sat at the bar, absentmindedly sipping her Arnold Palmer. Turning away from libations for the night, she remained focused on her hunt.
A television glared overhead, its audio muted and black strips of captioning flashing by. No matter the season, someone somewhere played some sort of sport that had to be broadcasted. Underneath the warm glow of lamps festooned with additional string lights, the young woman’s eyes darted from patron to patron.
Richie’s was the first bar Helen had ever been to. She had her first drink here during a quiet celebration of her twenty-first birthday, a restrained night-out funded by the modest earnings of her contractor father. Now seven years later, she returned to this wooden cloister.
It held fond memories, but Helen would hardly call it her scene. If she were not on a mission, she would only ever tread near the barely clean, tacky space if her father asked her there. Richie’s was a favored spot for the type of men who would be open to the amount of money she was willing to offer.
Helen twirled her straw in her glass, further mixing the iced tea and lemonade. The tinkling of ice provided festive accompaniment to the latest Christmas hit currently playing. She tugged at the sleeves of her cardigan, wishing she had picked something warmer. The black dress and stockings hugging her body were not enough to ward off the night’s chill. Perhaps she would call it off early. She could try this again tomorrow night. But she resolved to finish her drink first. She had paid for it, after all.
Her gut briefly wrenched as she wondered if she should have started her hunt sooner, perhaps even a month ago. Helen had been toying with the thought for weeks, but it was not until the proverbial last minute that an impulse finally cajoled her out of her apartment and led her to Richie’s. It was now or never. Well, if her chance lapsed, it would renew next December. Unless the idea fizzled from her brain first.
Perhaps she was just hungry. After she got out late from work, she had grabbed two samosas from an Indian take-out place on the way here. She ate them while walking and while they sated her at the time, the worry of finding a man might have innervated her metabolism. But the thought of Richie’s menu quelled her stomach into behaving. It would feel a lot worse if she ate the greasy standard offered here.
Sounds of shuffling bodies came behind her. Helen slowly glanced to the side to catch the latest man to join the cluster at the bar. The curled ends of her black bob pricked her neck as she whipped her head in his direction for a clear look. He was perfect.
This man seemed to have stepped off a studio set, navigated to a humble part of the city, and ended up a few stools down from Helen. His sweater fit snugly over his body, revealing a very fit physique. She could almost make out his pecs through the fabric. His bright blue eyes were shaded with long feathery lashes. His golden-spun hair was tousled just right. Helen bit her lip, mustering the courage to slide off her seat to approach him.
Her heart thumped heavily in her chest. She tilted her chin down and stretched her lips into her best smile. A finger instinctively swept the bangs from her eyes and curled strands behind her ear. As her kitten heels carried her to the man, Helen’s throat cinched.
“Hi,” she squeaked.
The man turned around, his eyes scanning from her legs upward. When his gaze reached her face, he broke into a sultry smile. His nearly white teeth flashed between plump lips.
“Well, hi there,” he drawled. “Care to sit?” He patted the empty stool beside him.
Helen demurely nodded and placed herself on the worn cushion.
“What are you having tonight?” she shyly asked.
“I’m thinking a Moscow mule. What about for yourself?” He nodded at the drink in her hands.
“Just an Arnold Palmer.”
“Nah! You’re not getting another one! Ya gotta cut loose!” he teased.
“Maybe I will!” Helen giggled. “But only if you’re buying!” She gently touched her fingers to his bicep.
He chuckled. “Whatever you want on the menu, miss …” His sparkling eyes fell upon hers. “What’s your name?”
“Helen.” She smiled. “And yours?”
“Well, Max, who knows? We might be here a while and go through many drinks on the menu.”
“If things go the way I’d like them to, maybe!”
Helen did finish her Arnold Palmer. Max ordered a gin and tonic for her second drink as she wanted to keep it light. And as their glasses gradually emptied, Helen was dead set on keeping Max’s attention. She routinely made contact with his arm, shoulder, or chest. Each touch tied another tether of intimacy and admiration. She hoped to weave the perfect net.
Max would be a flawless catch. She could see it now. The stunned and silent faces of her aunt and uncle. The flustered stare of her cousin, as Max was totally her type. The avalanche of photos her family would insist of them together. It would be a holiday where Helen did not feel like a lump of plain, practical-yet-underwhelming coal.
“Say …” said Helen after a delicate sip of her drink, “I’ll be off a few days next week for the holidays …”
“Oh? Are you gonna visit family?” asked Max.
“That’s the thing—I am! And I’m allowed a guest …” Helen simpered, scrunching her arms together to accentuate her small chest a bit.
“Um … that’s moving a bit fast isn’t it?” Max inched backward while his dark eyebrows drew upward.
“Oh, it’s not like we’re together officially. Like WE know we’re not, but my family …”
“Hold on, you want me to pretend to be your boyfriend?”
“Yes, to put it simply.”
Max’s face broke into a smile. Relief almost washed over Helen until Max began to laugh.
“I-I can pay you!”
Max’s eyes blew open even wider. “You damn crazy bitch!” He slapped the bar top. The crash of his hand tore through Helen’s plans in an instant. “This is something else! I gotta tell my friends about this!”
Helen’s face seized as panic took over. She stumbled to get away from Max as fast as she could. From the corner of her eye, the glow of his phone screen and his rapidly working thumb menaced her. But what her eye could not catch was the figure breaking away from a nearby booth to follow her.
Helen stopped next to the refurbished jukebox near the entrance. There was still time before the next bus would come and she did not feel like braving the cold just yet. She gritted her teeth and stamped a fist against her thigh. Of course her plan wouldn’t work. She was a fool to even hope. Lost in her self-deprecating thoughts, Helen failed to notice the figure cautiously inch closer.