Everyone has a place that they consider a ‘staple’ in their lives. Phoebe, Monica and co. had Central Perk, the Mitchells had the Queen Vic, and Blair Waldorf had the Met steps. My friends and I had this small, local bar called Purple Mustard and whatever mood we were in, that was where we would congregate.
Having a place where the staff recognise you has its benefits; the free drinks, the continuous gossip, and the feeling of popularity. But it also has its downside. And for me that downside was Michael.
“He’s singing to you!” Lisa says whipping her hair around.
“Of course he isn’t,” I retort, although now that she’s pointed it out I’m not so sure. He hasn’t taken his eyes off me once since he began singing, and now as his fingers strum the guitar, I just know that he chose this song because last week I told him it was one of my favourites.
Lisa and Josie are staring at him in awe, occasionally turning around to look at me with open mouths. “I can’t believe this,” they say in unison, exchanging looks and sniggling like schoolgirls.
“Stop it!” I snap. “I’m sure he’s not singing to me,” but as the words leave my mouth I know I’m doubting them. It is rather odd how he won’t stop looking at me. And now, come to think of it, he does this every week when he’s up there on Open Mic night.
The music draws to an end, and I sigh with relief. Perhaps he won’t come over. I’m sure he’s got loads of people going up to him and saying how good he was and all that. Or perhaps the manager needs him to work behind the bar tonight, as they are rather short staffed since Rodrigo's sudden departure back to Portugal. And, you know what, I’m pretty sure he told me that he has to fly to Manchester in the morning, which means that he needs to go home and get some sleep.
So, he won’t come over, I reassure myself.
“He’s coming over,” Josie says in what she believes to be subtle.
Lisa scarpers from my side and sits next to Josie. The two of them are now pretending to be deep in conversation. I know they’re lying – I pretty much invented what they’re doing.
“Hey,” Michael’s voice.
I turn awkwardly unsure as how I should approach this. Act like I didn’t even see him up there? No. That would be rude. Act like I didn’t notice that his eyes were glued to me and not even if the ceiling were crashing to the ground could be have torn them away? Hmm, perhaps.
I turn my head slightly to the side to acknowledge him.
He’s leaning on the back of the sofa, his head centimetres away from mine. But I try not to notice that even with the loud music I can hear his heavy breathing.
“I really liked the music,” I say with a smile.
I can feel him grinning.
“I’m really glad,” he says. “It means a lot to me. Alright ladies?” he says turning his attention to Josie and Lisa.
They wave like lunatics and continue their ‘deep conversation’.
“What has them so enthralled?” he asks sitting next to me.
“I think Kate Moss just designed another Topshop dress,”
He laughs wholeheartedly. His breath is a mix of tobacco and wine.
“I have a gig in Manchester tomorrow,” he repeats for the second time this evening.
“You said,” I tell him.
“I wish I wasn’t going,”
“It’s not that long,” I try to reassure.
“Can we see each other?” He begins. He’s turned away from me like a shy, little boy, his foot tracing swirls on the floor, “When I get back?”
I know exactly what he means, but I pretend I have no idea.
“Of course,” I say, “I pretty much live here,” I wave my arms to signal the bar.
"No,” he says curtly. “I mean alone,”
I’m lost for words. And excuses for that matter. My eyes flick to Josie and Lisa who have now given up on their ‘deep conversation’ and are just looking at us. I half expect them to jump up from their seat and say, “Actually, we’re going away on a looooong holiday to Skegness, so she won’t be here when you get back!” But that doesn’t happen because they adore Michael.
“Sure,” is all I manage. Like a coward.
The following Thursday came far too quickly. The girls and I were once again getting ready to meet everyone else at Purple Mustard for Open Mic night. If we were lucky some egotistical, tone deaf, deluded fool (with hopefully a beard because beards can be quite funny) would attempt the stage again, thinking that if he screams really loud it sounds just like Michael Jackson.
“Are you looking forward to seeing lover boy?” Lisa mocks as we approach the uphill walk to the bar.
“Please, shut up,” I say sternly just before she makes kissing noises.
“I still can’t believe he wouldn’t stop texting you when he was up in Manchester,” Josie begins, stopping halfway to remove a chewing gum wrapper from her Next heels.
“I’m sure he didn’t mean for it to come across quite like it did,” I jump to defend Michael. The truth is that I’ve been warming up to him this last week. I suppose it’s one of those situations where you find out someone has a crush on you, and the more you think about it, the more you like them. A forced ‘love’ in a way – the kind that are always evident when you’re in school.
We step into the bar. The familiar whiff of berries mixed with alcohol hits us as the doors swing open. It must be from all the cheap, fruity wine that Purple Mustard seems to excel in. There is no other bar within a 200 mile radius that does fruity alcohol quite like they do.
I spot Michael straight away as we enter. He’s perched behind the bar talking to a frequent customer. Our eyes meet but instead of smiling, I avert mine immediately. It almost feels wrong to initiate this … what is this exactly? Romance? Friendship? Flirtation? Well, whatever it is, it feels wrong.
“Go and say hi then,” Lisa demands like a 19th century mother, dangling her daughter in the Marriage Mart.
“Stop it, or I’ll tell everyone you slept with Rodrigo,” I snap. That shut her up.
“Last orders, guys,” Michael shouts.
The place is completely empty now, save for the token drunken guy in the corner, and of course, us.
Lisa is so drunk she has initiated another kiss with her ex and they’re now sucking faces by the toilers, and Josie has fallen asleep on the table three times. Usually I wouldn’t mind, but all three times have been right in the middle of me talking. I’m trying to not take it personally.
“You’re not drunk, are you?” Michael asks, picking up empty wine glasses from the table.
“Me? I’m as sober as a judge,” I say. It’s one of those moments that should be followed by a hiccup.
“How are you getting home?”
I look around at my two friends. “Well, Lisa will probably end up going back with Tom,” I point in her direction. Michael tries not to laugh when he notices that Lisa now has her legs around Tom’s waist. “And Josie will probably be content here,” I pat her blonde hair. She twists in her seat a bit but doesn’t wake up. “So I’ll probably just call a cab,”
He takes the dirty glasses and used bottles to the bar, and comes back.
“Josie lives around the corner,” I shout the realisation. “I’ll just go home with her,”
“Or,” Michael says, leaning against the table inches away from me. “You could come home with me,”
I laugh nervously.
He says nothing more about it, but after Lisa and Tom have waddled off back to his place, and the token drunken guy has disappeared only to reappear at exactly the same place the following night, it is only Josie and me that are left.
“I should take her back,” I say, nudging Josie so she wakes up. “Jose! Jose, wake up,”
“Huh? Oh. Hello,” she says, stretching like she’s been through a winter hibernation.
“We need to go home,”
“Was I asleep?” she asks, looking around. Surprisingly she no longer looks drunk. “I need to get home,” she jumps off the bar stool and lands on her feet, and without acknowledging me or anyone else, she walks out of the door.
“Oh. I should call a cab,” I say quietly reaching into my bag to find my phone.
“The offer still stands,” Michael looms behind me.
I look up at him. His dark eyes seem daring yet affectionate and they’re burning into me.
“I really should get home,” I say embarrassed, like I’ve done something wrong.
“OK,” he smiles and hands me the number for the cab company.
I call them and they say they’ll be outside within ten minutes. Michael has sat down on a table, the keys for the bar in his hand.
“Ten minutes,” I tell him, noticing that he needs to lock this place up.
“No problem. We can wait,” he smiles again and tilts his head towards the empty seat next to him. The keys jangle in his hands as he thinks of something to say. “I really missed you when I was in Manchester,” he tells me.
I only smile.
“I’ve liked you for so long. Surely you’ve noticed,”
Actually, no. But I don’t tell him this. I smile again like an idiot (blame the alcohol for that).
“It’s been a gradual thing. I thought you were quite fit when you walked in, but every time you’ve been here, well, it’s developed. And now I can’t stop thinking about you,” his words wash over me. It’s not the best conversation to be having when you’re 75% ethanol.
“I think I love you,”
Suddenly, alarm bells start to ring.
I turn my head towards him in shock to question what he’s just said – to set him straight. But he misunderstands me, and instead his cups my face with his hands and leans in for a kiss.
“I love you,” he whispers as he tears himself away from my lips.
I stand up quickly, knocking my knees on the table. “Where’s that bloody taxi!” I yell.
Michael is looking confused.
“Actually, it’s best I walk. It’s good to sober up,” I say, making a move towards the door.
“Did I do something wrong?” he asks, emerging from his seat, pain stricken.
“No!” I snap. “I just want to go home,”
“I shouldn’t have kissed you, should I?”
No, you shouldn’t.
“Is it the ‘love’ issue?” he asks.
Yes, it’s the bloody ‘love’ issue, I want to say. It would have been fine had Michael just stuck to saying that he liked me – that he fancied me. That would have been appropriate because kissing someone casually is fine with situations like that. And with time it can lead to something more. But how on earth do you begin a relationship when he’s on the ‘I love you’ stage, and you’re still lagging behind on the ‘Well, he’s not bad, is he’ stage.
I was unfair on him. But again, I’m going to blame the alcohol.
“I just want to go home,” I say, and I can visualise the words hitting him like arrows to the heart. “I’m sorry,”
So I leave Purple Mustard and race up the hill after Josie. When I find her she’s trying to jam her car keys into the front door lock.
“Well, hello there,” she greets cheerfully.
I take the keys from her hands and open the door. “Can I stay here tonight?” I ask and she nods vigorously. “Oh, and by the way, we should probably socialise in cafes from now on,”