I NEVER MISS A night out at Fred’s.
It isn’t that they serve better drinks than other bars, or have better peanuts, or the bar feels singularly amazing in any way. It’s that I like the idea of having a place. A place where, when we’re closing up shop and we say, “Beers later?” everyone knows what it means. A place where, when you walk in, someone waves and starts making your drink. I blame my mom and her love of Cheers throughout my childhood. I suppose the irony there is that hardly anyone at Fred’s—other than Luke and London—knows my real name.
I lock up the store, double-checking the back, the front window alarms, and the deadbolt once I’m out on the sidewalk. I haven’t smoked up in two weeks, but I still feel a paranoid buzz whenever I’m the last to leave at the end of the day because I know how much it matters to Oliver that everything is sealed up tight.
And if I really think about it, I would be pretty fucking heartbroken if something happened to the store. Despite my parents’ wishes that I grow up and get a job at Dad’s financial services company, I like working at the comic shop. I manage most of my parents’ investments because it’s a total trip—it’s never been intimidating. I’d played around in finance for shits and giggles since before I really understood the enormity of the responsibility Dad gave me in hopes that I would join him in the robot-world of accounting—but I don’t want to work in a cubicle or even an office for a job. I like talking to people all day, getting to read and enjoy art, watching the thriving downtown through the front windows.
This group of friends is a crazy mix of people, too. Oliver is smart as hell. He comes from a wildly broken background and basically raised himself, but you would never hear him complain about a thing or feel sorry for himself. Lola is an artist so gifted, and so humble, I think she might actually be an angel, and I don’t even believe in heaven. Ansel is a law professor. Full stop. I mean, you think he’s this goofy hot dude snacking on grapes in the corner and making jokes about getting Mia pregnant by blowing her a kiss, and then he starts talking about his work and it’s like he cyborg-shifts into Academic Superhero. The commitment it takes to get from A to Z in that career makes me trip a little. Mia is a dance prodigy teaching spastic little kids how to dance, and has the patience of . . . well, something with a lot of patience. I have no fucking idea where she gets it, but her fuse could stretch to the sun and back. Finn is this enormous, muscled dude who made me realize that, were I gay, I would definitely have a type. He can fix fucking anything, too. You name it: air conditioner, engine, stuck window, broken zipper on my jeans.
I may have done that last one just to fuck with him a little.
His wife, Harlow, looks at people and just figures them out. She’s like those people who can do a Rubik’s cube in ten seconds, but with human brains.
And London and Luke, the newest couple in the group, are really interesting people when they’re not attached to each other’s faces. She’s fit and scrappy, always down to surf, and just genuinely chill. He’s smart as fuck and has a heart the size of China. I’ve known Luke for years now, and I have to admit it’s pretty great to see him so happy. I’ve honestly never seen him like this.
And then there’s Betty—my beat-up old Saab. She’s not a speaking member of the group, but as my ride I’d say she’s up there in importance. She was my dad’s, back in the nineties, and he still thinks she’s the nicest car he’s ever owned. He drives a Tesla now, so I think he’s a bit of a dumbass to miss the Saab no matter how great she is, but then again, I’ve been told I’m an idiot for thinking Red Stripe tastes better out of the bottle than poured into a glass, so I’m not going to point any fingers.
And it’s true Betty is fun as hell to drive, but mainly because I’m never quite sure she’s going to get me to my destination intact. Always a mystery. She rattles, and stalls, and revs into the red for no reason. I could take her in to get fixed, but I suspect it would be a bit like taking a dying dog to the vet, and I’m just not ready to hear that kind of truth or to let go of her yet.
I pull into the gravel lot in front of Fred’s, and give the air outside a good thirty seconds to clear before I step out of the car so I don’t get choked by a cloud of black exhaust.
Fred waves to me from the bar when I get inside, and I toss him the latest TOON Book for his grandkid before heading toward the back. We have a booth we always claim . . . because Harlow.
Because Harlow is a reason we can give for about a hundred different things.
We have a reserved booth at a dive bar . . . because Harlow.
We don’t talk about spiders or any type of insect . . . because Harlow.
We all dutifully take our celebratory shots when they’re brought to us . . . because Harlow.
It’s only once I sit down that I remember the redhead in the store, the one with the eyes and the body. We get any number of hot women coming into the shop, but there was something about her, some fire behind her eyes that seems to stick in my head.
And she’s a friend of Oliver’s, which conveniently moves her out of the potentially batshit category.
Fred brings me an amaretto sour and I sip on it, absently people-watching, but it’s still pretty quiet. My phone buzzes near my elbow with texts from Andrew and Daniel in the group box. They’re probably sending links to weird-ass shit or making plans for tonight, but the last thing I’m up for is their usual routine.
Especially when I see Oliver’s tall form duck into the bar, followed closely by Lola and . . . her. They come over, wearing broad smiles, and I realize as they get closer that they’re smiling so big because I’m smiling so big.
“You look like a lunatic,” Oliver says, sliding into the booth at my left.
“Yup,” I say, scooting over to make room for the lovely French lass on my right.
Lola lets her in first and then follows, eyeing me oddly.
I hear Harlow’s laugh carrying over from near the bar, with Finn close behind her, and pretty soon we are all filling up the giant, round booth.
It’s a fascinating study of personalities. Oliver looks nervous. Lola looks oblivious as she doodles on a napkin. The redheaded bank robber smiles shyly. Harlow schools her scowl, reaching forward to shake her hand.
“Hi, it’s nice to meet you,” she says, and I know her well enough to know she’s bottling some shit up right now. “I’m Harlow.”
“Perry,” the woman says quietly, ducking her head a little, almost as if she’s nervous.
And at the sound of her name, I rack my brain, searching through the fog for the memory of where I’ve heard it before.
“Oh,” I say aloud, nodding. “Hey, you’re Ansel’s ex-girlfriend.”
Everyone turns to look at me, as though, by speaking the truth, I’ve just cracked the seal and let out something violent.
“What?” I ask, looking around. “Isn’t she?”
“Yes,” Lola says, eyes wide in her shut-the-fuck-up face.
“Sorry,” I say, leaning in to whisper, “was it a secret?”
Perry laughs, shaking her head. “No. Mia brought me here so I could meet you all.”
I reach forward, shaking her hand. “We weren’t properly introduced earlier. I’m Dylan.”
Silence rings out and everyone stares at me, mouths agape.
What did I say this time?
Harlow lets out a flat, “What.”
And then, Oliver smacks the table loudly, shouting, “NO!” though it’s really a laugh.
“Dude,” I say, bewildered, “my name is on my fucking paychecks.”
“I don’t send those out,” Oliver reminds me with a grin. “My accountant does. I’d forgotten. Joe is just such a perfect name for you.”
“But I’m not Joe.”
“Exactly,” Oliver says.
Lola studies me, her eyes making the round circuit of my face, my hair, my clothes. “Dylan?” she says. “Yeah, all right. But Not-Joe is better.”
It’s not like I fucking care what they call me, but I know how much they enjoyed the mystery, and I’m a little sad on their behalf. It’s like I’ve revealed how a magic trick was done or something, and nobody feels good about it.
But quickly I shake that off and turn back to Perry. “How long are you here?”
She shrugs, and looks up with a smile when Fred delivers a tray of drinks to the table. Perry ordered red wine . . . she will no doubt be disappointed with the merlot here.
And indeed, she winces a little when she takes a sip, but then I watch in fascination as she gives a little shrug like eh, fuck it, and goes back for some more.
So she has good taste, but isn’t a dick about it. Nice.
“I think a week or two?” she says after she’s swallowed her second taste. “I’m in between jobs and wanted to travel a bit, so the timing of this was very good. I have not been here since our last bike trip together.”
“Wait,” I say, pulling back a little to look at her. It’s like I’m only now noticing the definition of muscle on her bare arms, the spirit of adventurousness I sense when she smiles. “You did the bike trip with Oliver?”
She nods, grinning wider now. “That is how we all met. I was friends with these boys before Ansel and I were ever romantic.”
And the second time it comes up, no one seems to startle. It’s now only half as heavy, half as weird.
“You didn’t know them before all that?” I ask.
Perry shakes her head and her hair slides forward, over her shoulder. It makes me think of water sliding over a rock, which makes me think of swimsuits, which makes me think of skin. I am totally down with this line of thinking but remind myself to focus on the conversation at hand.
“We met on the ride,” she says.
This rattles me a little. I mean, she’s probably in her late twenties, and the trip I think she’s talking about was years ago. So this tells me she is brave, too, to have come here alone—to another country—and do something so completely unknown.
“Where did you grow up?” I ask her.
“Jesus, Joe, quit hogging her,” Oliver says, tossing a balled-up napkin at me.
“He’s okay,” Perry assures him, and looks back to me. “Orléans,” she says. “But I went to secondary school just outside Zurich.”
My heart trips as I ask, “Which school?”
Perry does this cute little full-face blink, like she can’t believe I’m asking this. “Institut Montana.”
With a laugh, I tell her, “I went to Aiglon.”
She stares at me. “You also went to boarding school in Switzerland?”
London and Luke appear right when Perry says this, and London pauses as she’s sliding into the booth beside Harlow. “Wait. Dylan went to boarding school in Switzerland?” And then she slaps a hand over her mouth, staring wide-eyed at Lola and mumbling, “Shit.”
Everyone turns to look at London.
“It’s all right,” I tell her. “The great name mystery has already been revealed—and I would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids.”
“You knew his name?” Harlow asks London, eyes wide.
“Luke and Dylan played water polo together after the great breakup of twenty-ten,” London explains with a little wince. “For what it’s worth, I felt a little sad, too, when the name mystery was solved.”
Luke pushes into the booth after London, and smiles at Perry as he shakes her hand, introducing himself. I watch her carefully, because most women have a near-audible reaction to meeting Luke—though from dating Ansel maybe she’s built up an immunity?—but she just smiles politely and then looks back to me, asking, “So why do you not speak French?”
I can see Luke watching me, like he’s reading my mind.
“I . . . um,” I start, and then blink back to Luke’s unnerving Jedi focus.
“Hey, Dyl,” he says, giving me this huge I can see you losing your mind right now grin.
“Hey, Sutter,” I say, grinning right back at him.
I mean, clearly he wants to watch this conversation, so I shrug, turning back to Perry. “My mom is German, my dad is Swiss-German. I speak both traditional German and Zurich Swiss-German, I just . . . never took French.”
But it isn’t just Luke. The entire table listens, entranced.
“What in the actual hell is your story?” Finn asks, in his deep growl.
“I was born in Switzerland but we moved here when I was about six. After that, I grew up just down the road in La Jolla, but wanted to move back for school when I was fourteen.” I poke at the ice in my drink with the thin cocktail straw. “My grandparents all live in Zurich, but I moved back here to go to college at UCSD.” I shrug. “I’ll probably move back there eventually.”
Beside me, I can see Oliver’s head jerk back in surprise.
Perry leans in a little, asking, “Was it hard to come back here?”
And when she says it like that, all quiet and personal, it feels like we are the only two people in this bar. As cheesy as it sounds, I stop noticing anyone but her. Not my buzzing phone on the table, not whatever our friends are doing next to us.
“Yes and no,” I say, and it seems to be enough, but I add anyway, “I’ll be happy wherever I am.”
She smiles, nodding like she gets it.
Like she gets me.