The door swung inward and they spilled into the bar, a trendy taproom that seemed wholly out of place in a strip mall. That was the Silver Lake aesthetic, gentrifying shop after shop down the winding end of Sunset. Former pawn shops converted into boutique pet groomers, the 99 Cent Store that now served small-batch gelato. The rent had begun to push everyone out, them included.
Aiden had already begun shoving tables together to accommodate their numbers. There weren’t enough. Deb remedied the problem by pushing a large floor speaker blasting Top Forty up to the table. “This works as a bench, right?” she asked, sitting before anyone could respond.
They piled into their seats one after the other, conversation propelled by all the drinks from the previous venue. Deb looked up from her phone. “We may have to get a little cozy,” she said. “Scarlett and Liam are on their way.”
This piqued Alex’s interest. “Where have they been?”
“Nesting,” said Jermaine.
“Accurate. I don’t think they’ve been out in public since that New Year’s trip to Vegas,” confirmed Deb. “Couples, man.”
“Not all of us are insufferable,” said Aiden, planting a kiss on Deb’s cheek. “I’m buying the first round and I don’t want to hear any complaints. Five-dollar Old Fashioneds good for everyone?”
“Uh — ” began Jermaine.
“Cool, Old Fashioneds it is,” said Aiden with a smirk, the spitting image of an 80s Wall Street shark. He slunk over to the bar.
“You’re a portrait of generosity,” Mike called after him. He turned to Deb. “Your husband is the cheapest rich person I’ve ever met.”
“And you’re welcome to buy your own drinks.”
Alex chuckled to himself. It had been a good evening, his first in a while. The show downtown had invigorated him in a way he didn’t expect. And even as last call approached, there was still more to look forward to.
The door opened in a burst, the blue glow of the parking lot hitting them like stage lights. The first couple of Silver Lake strode into the bar a portrait of glamor. Liam wore a tailored suit perhaps a bit out of place for the venue and his ever-unruly bedhead. Scarlett’s sanguine cocktail dress popped from the background, a sight more at home at a Hollywood premiere than a strip mall bar.
Jermaine caught their attention with a wave of his arm. They glided across the floor, taking rightful spots at the head of the table.
“Where did you come from? A wedding?” asked Mike.
Scarlett rolled her eyes. “Would you believe me if I said laundry day?”
“Maybe if you both showed up naked.”
Liam laughed and cut in. “Nah, we wanted to catch a friend’s gallery showing, but — ” he shot a fleeting glance at Scarlett. “ — we didn’t make it.”
Scarlett was all smiles as she responded. “And whose fault is that?”
“It wasn’t mine, if that’s what you’re implying.”
“Well, then I guess it was no one’s fault.” Her smile seemed to crack.
“Fine,” said Liam with a defeated raise of his hands. “Let me get you something to eat. Someone’s hangry.”
Scarlett rolled her eyes as he excused himself. Then it was as if Alex suddenly popped into existence. She lunged at him, gripping his forearm in her claws.
“Oh my god, Alex! I heard about everything.” Her eyes widened, and pupils narrowed, a junkie seeking her next fix. “I need details. I feel like I’m a full six months behind.”
Alex recovered from his surprise and peeled her hand back. “New Year’s, right?”
“So, what is that? Six and a half months? Damn.” Her freneticism softened. “Sorry about that. We’ve kind of been hyper focusing on our lives and everything else had to take a back seat.”
“Don’t sweat it,” he said, brushing it aside. “That’s just LA. People telling each other they need to hang out more until one of them dies.” He winked and they shared a laugh.
“You know, you say it’s funny, but that doesn’t make it okay. I really want to be there for my friends, but –” She shot an almost imperceptible look to the bar. “You know.”
“That’s why I’m single,” he added with a grin.
“Among other reasons, I hear,” she said excitedly, leaning in. It was all coming back to him. Scarlett subsisted on gossip. “Tell me everything. I have to know.”
So, he did. The break-up, the concert, the coffee date. The whole time she sat at rapt attention, absorbing like a sponge.
“And that’s where I am now. It’s rough, but you know. Every day is a little better. I know it sounds trite to say something like that.”
“I think the only reason things sound trite is because they’ve been true for so long. Healing doesn’t have to be original.”
He let that sink in. Interchangeable bodies bustled throughout the bar, features blending in a dark mass. “You’re not afraid we’re becoming completely ordinary?” he asked. “Like what makes us different from everyone else taking up space in this town?”
“Dude, you have to let go of that. No one is original. Once you come to terms with your complete superfluity, life starts to get a lot easier. The existential dread starts to seep away.”
“Is that where you are?”
“Absolutely. I mean, look at me. Do I look any different from any of these girls shoving themselves into too-tight dresses and ordering overpriced Friday night drinks?”
“Besides looking like you came from the runway, you mean?”
She laughed, leaning into him. “Wardrobe malfunction aside, I’m really unremarkable. So are you, so is Liam, and Lord knows Aiden is. He just got really lucky and now the world celebrates his mediocrity.”
“Celebrates my what now?” Aiden swooped down on the table, cradling a mass of drinks. The party reached out their collective hands to scoop them away.
“Nothing,” said Scarlett, taking one of her own. “We were just talking about the trailer for your new movie. Looks interesting.”
“That one was a lot of fun to work on,” said Aiden, dipping back into his seat. “You wouldn’t believe how cordial Seth Rogen is, especially in the director’s seat. My publicist is already sewing some seeds for an Oscar campaign.”
Scarlett rolled her eyes, making a covert “blah blah blah” gesture with her hand. Aiden didn’t notice. He was already lost regaling the table with tales from the set, humble bragging his way up and down the row. Scarlett returned her attention to Alex.
“I mean, I love him. But you gotta admit his whole deal is little silly. Though I probably shouldn’t talk. Glass houses and all that.”
“Are you suddenly Instagram famous or something?”
“Ha! I wish. I was speaking hypothetically. Like if I were suddenly Instagram famous, I’m sure I’d be the same way. Going to coffee shops and getting mad if they didn’t recognize me.”
The recognition hit him like a spark. “You read that Overheard LA post too.”
“I read that page every day. It’s too real.” She laughed, putting a hand on his wrist. It was a tiny gesture, but the warmth made his heart jump. As much as he tried to maintain conscious control, emotions will behave as they please. No logic can undo that.
“I read some of the stuff they post and experience this blend of shame for the gluten-free, image-obsessed ridiculousness of Los Angeles and then think ‘Oh yeah, I do all of this stuff.’” She laughed.
“Same,” he agreed. “I definitely build a sparkling water fund into my budget every month.”
“You and every other twenty-something north of Pico.” She winked. “See what I mean about irrelevance? Sure, LA has this unique flavor that makes it immediately identifiable from a distance, but that’s only because we’re all the same. Just a great mass of humanity collectively limping toward some mutant child of the American Dream. We all want to be somebody without realizing we already are somebody. That’s why everyone in this town is so goddamn miserable.”
Alex couldn’t help but smile through the futility of it all. “What about you?” he finally asked. “Are you miserable?”
“Less than I was,” she said. “But…”
It hung there, her thought stalling out mid-ignition.
“I don’t know.” She removed her hand from his arm, cradling her cup pensively. “I think it’s just the human condition to be in a constant state of dissatisfaction.”
“Do you know what it is specifically?”
She sat silently, her Old Fashioned seeming to captivate her.
“We don’t have to get into it if you don’t want to.”
“No, it’s fine,” she said, coming out of her trance. “I just wasn’t expecting to get this deep. Serves me right for disappearing for so long.”
“You know I don’t hold that against you.”
“Yeah, but that doesn’t exactly make me friend of the year.”
Now it was his turn to lay a reassuring hand on her. “There’s something I’ve noticed about you, Scarlett. It doesn’t matter how long it’s been or what we’ve been through since, we always seem to pick back up where we left off. I don’t begrudge the distance at all. It’s just good to see you. It always is.”
She smiled, settling beneath his touch. “It’s good to see you too.”
“Sorry that took so long.” Liam descended on the table, dropping a plate between himself and Scarlett. “I got us some nachos to share.” He popped a cheese-encrusted chip into his mouth as Alex quickly withdrew his hand.
Liam’s eyes darted between the pair. “What’s going on here?” he asked jovially.
“Oh, nothing,” said Scarlett. “We were just –”
The sound tore through the bar, penetrating the din like a bullet. Heads dropped their conversations and whipped toward them. All eyes fixed themselves on Alex.
He looked down. His phone lit up like an electric flame, the gaudy image of a cartoon heart blazoned on the screen. It happened just as advertised though he didn’t realize the sound would be so deafening. “Several decibels above your device’s theoretical limit” seemed to be a bit of an understatement. And why it had to be announced so loudly, he didn’t know. Someone at development must have been mighty proud of their algorithm.
What did happen just as advertised hung in the air above him. A holographic exclamation point like a cartoonish manifestation of emotion for some unseen audience pointed him out to the whole bar. That same developer didn’t want you hiding from reality.
What he didn’t expect was the time or place. Nor the person sitting in front of him. A light shone from Scarlett’s purse like a beacon and a matching exclamation point labeled her, drawing just as many stares her way as to Alex. Everyone at the table froze, eyes widening and jaws hanging on hinges.
Then, the bar erupted in applause. It rippled from the table to the back in rolling waves, a few whistles tossed in for good measure. A bearded hipster at the bar met Alex’s gaze and offered him a thumbs up. Another winked. He felt like retreating into his jacket.
As the cheering subsided, everyone around him remained frozen, a snapshot of mutual horror. Scarlett had gone white and Alex assumed the same of himself. Soon the bar had forgotten the disruption, but it still lay over his friends like a shroud. The exclamation points blinked in unison and vanished.
Liam stared at his girlfriend, expression a stony cipher. Finally, he broke the silence. “What the fuck, Scarlett?” His voice came out a growl.
She didn’t answer. Reaching into her purse, she locked the glaring phone. She shot a pleading glance toward Alex, but what could he offer?
“That was — loud,” said Jermaine.
“Yeah, you’d think they’d have a silent option,” said Mike. “But I guess that defeats –”
Liam’s eyes shot toward Mike, burning with rage.
“ — the purpose,” he finished. He busied himself sucking the last few drops of Old Fashioned through his straw. Gurgling. Gurgling.
“I’m gonna step outside for a smoke,” announced Aiden. He turned to Deb. “Care to join, babe?”
“Please,” she said, springing from her seat and whisking out the door in a single motion.
Jermaine and Mike quickly followed suit, citing their need for a cigarette (neither smoked to Alex’s recollection). Soon, the three sat alone.
“I’ll ask you again,” began Liam, voice wavering. “What. The. Fuck.”
“Do you want me to leave you alone for this?” asked Alex, pulling back a bit from the table.
Liam shot an accusatory finger at him. “You stay put. This involves you too.”
“It’s not like he had any idea.” Scarlett finally.
“Do you think I’m stupid? I saw you two carrying on from the bar. All that leaning in. All that touching.”
“That’s not what this is,” insisted Scarlett, gesturing between her and Alex. “We’re just friends. You know this.”
“Apparently I don’t know much of anything.” The volume of his voice was starting to rise, gathering the attention of a few nearby drinkers. “How long has this been going on? How long — while we’ve been living together — have you been DATING?!”
The accusation seemed to cause a shift in Scarlett. Suddenly, a fire lit behind her eyes. “Get off your fucking high horse, Liam. Do you know how stifling the past five months have been? I just rot in that apartment, allowing myself to be whisked away to whatever nonsense you need arm candy for. I feel irrelevant. Just a fucking sweater you picked out and keep in the closet until the occasion fits. I’ve been wasting away, dying for a connection. And you know what? My bad for not being more upfront about my needs. My bad that I expect you to pay the tiniest attention to me.”
“Excuse me, are these seats taken?” A tipsy blonde in a toothpaste dress leaned over the vacant table.
“Excuse you. We’re having a conversation here,” Liam hissed, shooing her away.
“Okay, rude,” she drawled to no one in particular, stumbling away.
“You’re still not paying attention,” Scarlett yelled, waving a hand in front of his face. “Can you stop getting distracted for five seconds and listen? This right here — ” She jabbed a finger into the table. “This is why I downloaded Love Meet. I’m so fucking stranded I need a computer to tell me who I have a real connection with. Loudly. Unmistakably.”
“At a bar with all of our friends?” Liam spat. “You’re a real piece of work, you know that?” He scooped up his phone and wallet, rising to his feet.
“Well excuse me for not realizing the app runs in the background.”
“That’s not the issue and you know it. I’m going to Jeremy’s tonight. When I get home tomorrow, I think we need to have a talk.” He did the front button of his coat before exiting, Hollywood pomp to the end.
“Jeremy — that’s rich,” Scarlett mumbled. She turned to Alex. “That’s a euphemism for his assistant Jessica. They’ve been fucking for three months now.”
“Oh, yeah?” was all Alex could offer in return.
She seemed to notice his lack of purchase on the situation. “I’m sorry you had to be here for all that. Honestly, it’s been a long time coming.”
Alex turned the events over in his mind, the “PING!” repeatedly registering like a tattering of pinball bumpers. “Was this really an accident?”
Scarlett stared at him a moment before giving her head a resigned shake. “To be frank, I’m not sure. I mean this is kind of my nightmare. No offense.”
“It’s not that you aren’t great, but — ”
He waved her off. “You don’t have to explain.” He gestured between the two of them. “This isn’t what I’m looking for.”
She grinned. “I think a part of me just wanted all this in the open. And mission accomplished if that’s the case.”
“Does this mean you’re going back into hiding for another five months.”
“Not this time. But I probably have to start looking for housing again.”
“That sounds like the worst.”
“I know. And I probably deserve it.”
They shared another look, letting the noise roll back over them. Suddenly a great metal clang came from behind the bar. Last call.
“Should we join everyone for a smoke?” offered Alex.
“After all that, I’m probably just gonna turn in.”
They rose together. Alex slapped a few bills on the table in case Aiden decided to walk back his hospitality. It wouldn’t be the first time.
“So,” began Scarlett as they pushed out onto the sidewalk. “Why are you on Love Meet?”
Alex fumbled blindly for his keys. The trek from the bar had been more of a hike, the parking situation on Sunset existing in a constant state of “not ideal.” He finally reached the fob and gave it a quick tap. His car chirped, reminding him of a beloved pet greeting him at the door.
He was about to slip in and begin his journey eastward when, “Nolan! Where do you think you’re going, you asshole?!” The sound of his last name made him leap to attention. Down the street, a shadowy figure rapidly approached. It came into wavering focus as it passed under a street light. Liam raced toward him, face contorted in a grimace.
Alex struggled to align the pieces even as Liam bore down on him. “Wait. Aren’t you supposed to be at Jessi — Jeremy’s place?”
Liam grabbed him by the collar and shoved him up against his car. Finger in his face and breath reeking of cheap whiskey, Liam hurled accusations at him, but each seemed to bounce off unheard. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Alex registered how ridiculous the scene before him was, but nevertheless rode along for the spectacle. This will be a fun thing to tell Scarlett, he thought. Or wait, was that the issue?
“You think you can just match with people’s girlfriends and get away with it?”
Question marks bobbled around Alex’s head. “Dude, you know how computers work, right?”
“I’m gonna kick your ass. I knew the minute I saw you two in that booth in Vegas that you were trouble. You don’t get to walk around ruining people’s relationships.”
“Can we just pump the brakes here for a minute?”
“Just because you’re sad and alone doesn’t give you the fucking right to…”
The sound shattered the night. Liam froze, finger stuck in an accusatory point. A pair of exclamation points hung in the air above them. Haltingly, Liam released his grip, mouth flapping, searching for words.