(Missed the last chapter? Go to 33: A Leaf about to Fall)
BRANSON TEXTED ME back as I turned onto Robinson Street. He was at UrgePool doing business, whatever that meant. With all the trauma and drama in my life, I hadn’t asked for an update regarding his plan to become a partner at there, and he hadn’t offered.
Branson’s text said he could take a break in an hour or two. Normally, I would have found something else to do until he was ready, but not today. I needed Branson—the only person in my life that I could count on to be both sane and kind. Lately, everybody else seemed to change like a kind of weird time-lapse photography, colors and patterns shifting with changes in the light.
UrgePool opened at noon Thursdays through Sundays for lunch and spa services, so I knew the doors would be open. I texted back that I would be there in fifteen minutes and he could find me at the bar whenever he was free. UrgePool had my man and plenty of alcohol. Why bother going anywhere else?
When I arrived, there was no line, no bouncer. It was the quietest I’d ever seen the place, just fifteen to twenty people scattered around the front bar, eating dainty Asian-fusion appetizers and drinking designer martinis and imported beers. The sound system played sixties psychedelic rock at a level low enough for conversation.
I took a seat at the far corner of the L-shaped bar and ordered vodka and cranberry from a bartender I’d never seen before, a goth guy with two full sleeves of elegant black and white tattoos, eldritch faces emerging from swirling patterns like the bark of a tree. I didn’t see anyone I knew, which suited me fine. I was happy to lean against the brick wall and people watch. I sighed as the first few sips of alcohol warmed my belly and relaxed my limbs.
I’d felt a tinge of anxiety, remembering the weird shadows I’d thought I’d seen grabbing the girl on the dance floor, and the creepy vibe this place got late at night packed with people high on Light. But now UrgePool looked almost normal—just another trendy bar. Late-afternoon light streamed through the windows high on the front wall, casting warmth on polished concrete floors and colorful liquor bottles lined behind the bar.
The computerized room dividers and dance pool, usually throbbing and swirling with a hypnotic wave patterns, softly pulsed with blue and violet-gray light. The crowd looked like mostly suburbanites checking out the scene and college kids getting an early start on their Saturday night. But despite the calm surface, something felt off.
A young couple leaned into one another over a plate of architecturally arranged shrimp and tuna Carpaccio. They stroked each other’s hair and gazed into each other’s eyes with such intensity that I knew they must be high. I looked around the room. Was everyone on Light?
Having done the Light once, I could attest to how happy it made you feel, how beautiful everything appeared. Strange that when I was sober, watching other people under its influence made every hair on my body stand up. I wanted to run in circles waving a flaming torch and screaming, “danger, danger,” like a villager on the hunt for Frankenstein.
I took another gulp of my drink and stared at the polished concrete bar. I knew that when I saw my new therapist she would most likely send me to a psychiatrist for testing. If the psychiatrist prescribed medication, it meant I would have to stop drinking entirely. But for tonight, I just wanted to relax and enjoy my time with Branson.
I figured we could stay at his apartment, sleep late, and enjoy a lazy Sunday complete with lovemaking and waffles. With any luck, I could avoid going back to my recently invaded home until at least Monday morning.
I ordered another drink and tried to enjoy the sixties rock. It reminded me of my dad, who’d had a passion for The Beatles. I tensed, expecting to be swamped again by sadness and anger, but it didn’t come. For the first time, remembering Dad didn’t make me feel like my chest was going to cave in. The music kept the grief at bay.
As He Said, She Said came on, three forty-something women in expensive, nuevo-hippy attire sat down a few barstools down from me. I wondered if they somehow knew what kind of music to expect before they got here. With the exception of Branson’s band, I certainly never did.
The women ordered Chardonnay from the tattooed bartender and asked if Branson was in. I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop. In fact, I had the sudden urge to clamp my hands over my ears.
The women appeared nervous, but the bartender nodded as if this was a perfectly normal request. “I’ll call him.”
I watched with a sinking feeling as Goth-guy walked his tattoos down the bar and picked up the phone. A moment later, he was back with their drinks. “Branson will meet you at the door to InnerPool.” He pointed toward the back of the room. “End of the bar, take a right, look for the door with the silver fish.”
The women thanked him and departed, wine glasses in hand. I had no idea what was going on, but my gut said I wasn’t going to like it.
Hoping I was being paranoid again, I tried mightily to imagine what business those women could have with Branson. They didn’t look like club owners who might want to book his band. Nor did they look like groupies. People in need of a computer tech wouldn’t be looking for Branson here. It must have something to do with his new partnership at the club.
All of a sudden, our tacit don’t ask, don’t tell policy regarding UrgePool seemed like a bad idea. It’s not like I thought Branson was hooking up for orgies with bored housewives in InnerPool at four in the afternoon. I trusted Branson, I just didn’t trust this place. Walt, in particular.
A few minutes later, the three women returned, giggling and looking much more relaxed. Apparently their meet-and-greet with Branson had gone well. They ordered another round of white wine. By this time I felt like I was spying, though I had intended nothing of the kind. I grabbed my drink and got up to move. As I passed the women, I heard one saying with a laugh, “I don’t know how I let you talk me into this. I haven’t done acid since college!”
“Light, not acid.” The other woman lowered her voice and I missed part of what she said next. But I did catch the words, “best orgasm ever.”
I was about to walk out and try to forget what I’d just heard. I didn’t know what Branson was up to here, and I didn’t want to—not yet anyway. I had too many problems of my own. But then Dr. Grey strode in. I froze, willing myself to become invisible.
Luckily, Dr. Grey’s eyes were still adjusting to the dim light inside and I was able to slink back to my corner seat. The guilty fear she inspired in me wasn’t entirely unfounded, for once. Not only was I here, drinking vodka after being sent home from work to rest, my boyfriend was here, too, almost certainly dealing drugs. If Dr. Grey knew, she’d fire me for sure—and she’d be right.
I watched with dread as my boss walked straight toward the bar.