It was late and the wedding party was winding down, dwindling after the heights of midnight, people leaving as the free bar closed. The light was just turning over the bay, dawn coming, the boat lamps’ green and red reflections in the slapping waves. I took my last drink to the prow of the boat and toasted my friend and comrade, somewhere asleep and married now. My glass was met with another. It was empty. Her name was Jennifer. I had been introduced, but had not spoken to her.
‘Shall we get out of here?’ she said. ‘There’s a place I know.’
Cresting waves as the sun comes up. A wedding almost already forgotten. New clothes that make one feel taller. It changes people.
‘Sure,’ I said.
‘It’s a walk,’ she said. ‘I’ll warn you.’
‘I like to walk,’ I said.
She nodded and I took her arm, old-fashioned, like marriage, and we disembarked down slippery wooden stairs to the dry asphalt of the dock. It took me a moment to find my land legs. We’d been aboard for under half a day; I felt Drake laughing, Vasco de Gama, Marco Polo. Jennifer was looking left and right, exaggeratedly. Her hair bobbed as she moved, shellac dark and lacquered.
‘Left, I think,’ she said. ‘Yes, left.’
You know,’ I said. ‘They say you should always take the left.’
‘Well they say it about queues in theme parks. Take the left hand line, it’ll always be shorter.’
‘So they say.’
‘And what do you think? What’s your opinion?’
‘I think we should turn left.’
‘Good,’ she said.
We turned left down a long silent road. The buildings were commercial, triple locked, bolted with chains and metal, graffiti tagged. It was a perfect kind of trashed America: the kind from a movie. Inside the buildings gangsters made unrefusable offers, on-the-run lovers held each other tightly, a hiding family came together in love and humour. That’s the thing about running away, everything feels like a possibility.
‘At the end of the street, we’ll turn right,’ she said. ‘The bar will be there.’
It was quiet enough to hear the waves slap the bay, brush against the boats and yachts.
‘What’s it like,’ I said, ‘this place?’
Jennifer turned to me and laughed. She took my arm in hers.
‘Well, it’s underground, in a basement. You wouldn’t even know it was there unless you were looking. There’s a chalk marking by some peeling metal stairs. You knock on the door and a steel hatch opens.’
‘A password?’ I said.
‘Yes. Luckily I know it. It’s Madagascar,’ she said. ‘The woman who owns the bar went there once and never forgot it. There are maps of the place in the restrooms. At least in the ladies there are. The restrooms smell of Madagascan vanilla pods too.’
She smiled and almost skipped. We got to the end of the street and turned right. The sun dazzled a kind of Main Street. There was a barbers, a grocery store, a deli, a laundromat and a diner. All closed. No people, no cars. It was like walking into a photograph. A perfectly shot photograph.
‘I think there are two kinds of people,’ she said as we stopped outside a thrift store and looked in its window. ‘Those who see a street like this and see the end of the world, and those that love the silence.’
‘Which do you think I am?’ I asked.
‘The latter,’ she said. ‘I wouldn’t be with you if I thought you were the other kind.’
‘I forgot, the bar is at the end of the street, and then left. Not on this street at all.’
‘Tell me more about it.’ I said.
‘I don’t want to spoil the surprise,’ she said. ‘But let me tell you that the bar is a horseshoe and was designed by Harry McEhone himself.’
‘The Harry of Harry’s New York Bar in Paris?’
‘The very same. You know your stuff. Colour me impressed. Anyway, this place is where all the actors and writers and musicians come so no one will bother them.’
‘They come all this way?’
‘Yes. But there’s locals too. Stevedores and soldiers, waitresses and gas station attendants, boxers and salesmen. Other bartenders too.’
‘You can always trust a place that other bartenders drink,’ I said and she squeezed my hand.
We got to the end of the Main Street and took a right. The neighbourhood took a turn for the worse. Broken windows and dirty stucco, crumbling blocks and walk-ups.
‘Just two blocks down,’ she said.
‘Is the music good?’ I said. ‘At the bar?’
‘It’s the best. The bartender has a friend known only as Stockhausen. He tailors the music to perfectly fit the mood. No one has ever met him. Someone offered him a million dollars once to play for a party they were throwing, but he refused.’
We walked passed a burned-out car and there were beer bottles broken in the guttering.
‘I like gin,’ I said. ‘Do they have good gin?’
She shook her head in mock disbelief.
‘Some call it the Gin Eden, does that answer your question?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said, ‘does it?’
‘They call the bartender the Alchemist. His cocktails are legend. Everything he makes is perfect, but don’t ever ask him for any brand of anything. His gin is his gin, his Bourbon his Bourbon. They have three beers, light, medium, and dark. Ask for anything else and you are kindly escorted to the exit.’
I nodded. ‘Thanks for the tip.’
‘You’re more than welcome,’ she said.
We turned again and the road opened out onto a great expanse of nothing. A wasteland surrounded by chicken-wire and razor-wire. There were aerials and communication towers, coloured lights on the asphalt.
Jennifer stopped. She looked back and forward, left and right.
‘We must have made a wrong turn,’ she said. ‘This is the airport.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘It looks like an airport at least.’
‘One thing about airports,’ she said. ‘They always have a bar.’
She took my arm again. She smelled of Madagascan vanilla, of mahogany fixtures, of perfect cocktails. We walked in silence around the airport and then into the terminal. Inside there was an empty bar, opening up for business.
Jennifer and I took the stools around the horseshoe bar. The bartender looked up at us, bloodshot in the eyes.
‘Two Bloody Marys,’ Jennifer said.
The bartender set to work on the drinks with a smile. We did not speak but looked at the way he made our drinks. They were huge. A celery stick the size of Jennifer’s arm poked out of both.
The bartender set down the drinks.
‘So where are you both headed?’ he asked.
Above the bar was a screen with all the departures listed. Cities in the US, cities of the world. I looked up and scanned the names. I wondered where Jennifer’s bar really was. She put her hand on mine. She looked up at the screen behind the bartender.
‘We’re just deciding,’ she said. ‘Aren’t we?’
She looked at me.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Yes, we are.’