Disclaimer: I do not own Red Eye. Please enjoy!
"Loosen up, Lisa. You look like you're sitting on nails," Cynthia said, punctuating her statement with a sip.
Lisa smiled apologetically. She unstuck her arms from her sides and folded them on the table. Fingers intertwined, she stared at the refraction of light from Cynthia's drink on her skin. It glittered a pleasant, lacy pink.
Hanabi was a bar Lisa had heard of but never been to. It was packed but demure: people occupied tables or stools, chatting over glass countertops. Fat globes of paper hung from the ceiling, bulbs lighting them from within. It dimmed the room until the white walls and leather looked almost creamy. There was no alcohol tang to the air; it was clean, with only hints of vanilla ghosting over bubbles of conversation. Incense was probably burning somewhere.
They were waiting for some of Cynthia's friends. Lisa didn't normally go out on Friday night – she couldn't recall that last time she'd been to a bar, even one as nice as Hanabi. The sensation of alien surroundings held her in stark contrast to Cynthia's natural ease.
"I wish you'd order something." Cynthia's tone took a turn higher, pleading. "I probably look weird, drinking alone."
"No one's looking at you," said Lisa through a smile. She ran one thumb over the other and wished Cynthia assure her in kind.
"Come on, please?" she asked instead, and Lisa politely shook her head. Cynthia worried her lip, then quickly stopped and dotted her mouth with the back of her hand. Lisa said her lipstick was fine. Cynthia thanked her, and after a few moments of silence said, "Well, if I can guess, then."
"What?" asked Lisa. Cynthia took another sip and set her drink down. Pink flickered along the tabletop, over the curves of Lisa's knuckles.
"I bet it has Kahlua in it. Does it have Kahlua in it?"
She shook her head, but a grin pulled at her lips. If nothing else, Cynthia's game would distract her until her friends arrived. Lisa pressed her mouth into an innocent line and decided not to tell her she didn't have a signature drink.
"Kahlua and Cream."
Cynthia made a sound of concentration. Her eyebrows knitted together, smudging soft creases along her nose. "White Russian."
"No cream," Lisa told her.
In all honesty, Lisa couldn't remember what distinguished one drink from the next. She hadn't drunk alcohol in more than a year. Tonight was the first time she allowed herself to be dragged out by her coworker, because she'd been told they were going to a movie. When they arrived at the bar, Cynthia quickly ushered Lisa into surrender with her big eyes and quivering lip. An effective actress.
"Never even heard of it."
Cynthia's face had screwed up tighter. "… Jägerbomb?"
Lisa laughed. Her hands came apart and it no longer felt as though she were strapped down. She relaxed a little and cushioned herself into her seat.
"Nevermind," she said.
"Oh." The lines on her forehead smoothed. "What's in that?"
Another laugh rippled through Lisa, until curls fell into her eyes and tickled her chin. "It's not a drink. I meant game over."
"No, you just didn't win," Lisa said comfortingly. "Why don't you tell me what you're drinking?"
Cynthia popped the straw into her mouth and took an enthusiastic sip. "Sea Breeze. Wanna try?"
The Lux Atlantic considered itself an outstanding hotel, but its work parties were standard fare. The host's penthouse was as spacious as a luxury suite, settled into the corner of a building by the shoreline. Ocean glimmered on all sides, reflecting the dark netting of night and dewdrop stars. The walls were made of glass – you couldn't ignore the view if you tried, and that was the point. However, it appeared to unnerve most. Many of the guests were cluttered into the center, or converging around the powersuit hosting the party, trying to schmooze while the boss was tipsy.
Jackson lounged in a crowded corner, observing the partygoers through thick-rimmed glasses and mud brown contacts. Hair unkempt and tie improperly fitted, his reflection was nearly unrecognizable and certainly unremarkable. In short, Jackson was transparent.
Between him and the other side of the room was a three-piece-suit chatting up a younger, slightly overweight black dress, a racing stripe bleached white over his ring finger and glaringly obvious against his bottled tan; a teenager (maid, he assumed, minimum wage) leaning out the door and sucking on a cigarette like life support; the buzz moths, hovering clumsily close with flasks flashing between their bodies; and the token recovering alcoholic, slumped in a chair with a bottle of water in one hand and a pack of gum in the other.
Lisa was by the door with a wobbly blond and her boyfriend.
Jackson allowed his gaze to casually flick over everyone, pausing on pieces of artwork or people he was quite sure weren't looking. He even entertained conversation with some, keeping to monosyllabic replies and intentionally dull topics.
No special attention was paid to Lisa, though she was the one he catalogued: the same black two-inch heels she wore with everything, a black skirt with a swirling pattern of white flowers, a white blouse and a string of fake pearls. Her hair was down (it always was), and there was a straw pursed between her lips.
That was curious. Lisa stayed in most nights, tried to sleep, got up, made eggs, read a book, and then flicked off the bedroom light again. Once she'd gone to a movie (with Cynthia, who appeared to be her only friend), and once she'd gone to a bar (again with Cynthia). She hadn't ordered anything, though she'd had a sip of Cynthia's proffered drink and the look on her face – following the short pucker – suggested she'd liked it. Now she had the same drink, pink and clinking, with a wedge of lime straddling the rim. Tropical, it looked like. Possibly a Sea Breeze.
He'd been looking too long. Jackson switched his gaze to the glass wall, feigning interest in a yacht that sliced a foamy scar through the water. Instead he watched the warped darkness of Lisa's reflection.
Cynthia said something that had Lisa laughing, and the man laughed too, then reached out to touch her. Cynthia didn't appear upset; not boyfriend, Jackson remarked, and instead filed the stranger under friend, possibly brother. Lisa's shoulders furled inward like charred paper and she stepped back. Cynthia's shoulders slumped, and the man coughed into his hand and quickly excused himself. The flirtatious atmosphere was fractured. Lisa turned her head down, slowly stirring her drink.
With his back to the party, Jackson's face was hidden from everyone but himself. He looked into the glass and his expression smirked back at him, satisfied.
Hanabi was more crowded than usual. Lisa and Cynthia only squeezed through the door after Cynthia gave the bouncer a none-too-sly wink. Lisa asked what on earth she was doing, tone burst by a laugh, and Cynthia grinned, bright eyes glistening.
"I'm not going to do anything, don't worry."
They found seats at the bar. The stools were small and curved to be comfortable, with low backs. Lisa hooked her heels over the rung and tucked her hair behind her ears, feeling strangely exhilarated.
"Two Sea Breezes," Cynthia said, waving the bartender over.
"And whatever he wants," Lisa added quickly, pointing to a man at the end who had obviously been waiting since before they sat down. He smiled ruefully and ordered his drink. He was younger than her, with round glasses and red hair. She felt a pang of pity for him: the bar scene could be cruel, as male bartenders usually served the pretty girls first, everyone else after. Cynthia didn't seem to mind this, but it irked Lisa.
"I hope you didn't give him any ideas," said Cynthia, watching the man's back as he waded back into the tables. He joined three friends, all of whom had drinks already.
"Pardon?" asked Lisa, thanking the bartender as she took her Sea Breeze.
"You know, doing him a favor. I mean, anywhere else that's just nice. At a bar, it means something."
Lisa dipped her head to take a sip; her hair fell in front of her eyes, and her earlier excitement began to wane. Now she just felt cramped and a bit too hot. "Oh, come on. I just helped in him get a drink, that's all."
"Maybe… No! Look! He's looking at you!" Cynthia's tone was loud but conspirational, a high pitched whisper.
As the warmth of vodka rushed down her throat, Lisa's cheeks flared pink. "Stop that!"
Cynthia grinned and batted her. "But now that I've got a better look at him, he's not so bad. Except for the glasses, I mean. But you could do better."
Lisa groaned. "You don't even know him…"
"Neither do you," said Cynthia. "And while we're on the subject, who do you know? That's a guy, I mean."
Lisa's eyebrows rose suspiciously. "Why?"
She shrugged. "I know –"
"Your dad doesn't count."
She rolled her eyes. "Fine. I know Mark."
Cynthia squeezed her lime wedge, then swirled the straw idly around the glass. The ice cubes tolled like little bells. "He's your accountant, and married. Next."
"But he's still a man."
"Don't be like that. You know I'm talking about guys here, Leese. The dateable kind."
Lisa ran a hand through her hair and closed her eyes, thinking hard. "There was that guy I met at the post office…"
She peeked at Cynthia, who looked pleased. "Yeah? And what's his name?"
"Uh…" Lisa pinched the bridge of her nose, ashamed. "I don't remember."
She pouted. "You didn't call him back, did you?"
"Well, it was the week of the dentist convention and it was right after the caterers cancelled on Marlene! I didn't have time!"
"You had that mess cleaned up right away!" Cynthia said. "You could have called him after!"
"What if I woke him up?" she tried feebly.
There was a short silence, broken by Cynthia's sudden laugh, and Lisa laughed too. "Okay, all right. But I'm just not looking for a relationship, okay?"
"That sucks," said Cynthia, "because I know someone who is and I think you two would –"
"No," Lisa cut across her. "Absolutely not. Friends don't let friends blind date."
"I'll remember that," she teased, sliding off the stool and setting her purse on it. "I'll quote you on it at your guys's wedding, in my maid of honor speech."
"I'm not going on a blind date," she half-laughed. "And where are you going?"
"Ladies room," she said. "I had, like, a whole five-hundred mil of Evian after the gym. I'll be right back."
Lisa wanted to frown, but the absurdity of their conversation had the corners of her mouth tugged up. She took a long sip of Sea Breeze and let the liquor dull her senses a moment.
"Hey there," came a voice, deep and unfamiliar.
Her eyes snapped open and she looked to her side. Cynthia's purse was now sitting on the bar and there was a man in her seat. Even sitting, Lisa could tell he was roughly her height, but with big arms and a chest that pressed against his black shirt. She never liked men in dark colors.
"That seat's taken," she said, hands cupped protectively around her glass. Frost beaded along her fingers, curling down her skin.
"And how about you?" he asked. His eyes went right for her ring finger and, upon seeing nothing there, he smiled. "Apparently not. My name's Garth."
"That's nice," she said, trying to keep her tone congenial. "But, listen, my friend's coming back and if you could just…"
"Almost done that, huh?" He motioned brusquely to the Sea Breeze she was clutching. Pink liquid and ice cubs glittered halfway to the top. "How about I order you another?"
"No thank you." Her voice was harder. "Really, you should go."
"Bartender!" Garth yelled, loud enough to draw attention. Lisa noticed his collar unbuttoned and the drops of liquid on his sleeves, and realized he was probably a little drunk. "Can I get another…" He turned back to Lisa. "What's that called?"
"Nothing," she said. "I don't want another. Please go away." Her head swiveled to the hallway leading to the ladies room. There was a line emerging into the bar, but Cynthia wasn't in it. Had she already gone in?
"What is that?" he asked again, and when she turned to say something sharp, she saw that he was speaking to the bartender. "She wants another."
"No, I don't!" she growled. "What I want is for you to go away!"
He looked at her, expression ungrateful. Reflexively she flinched, but steeled herself to scream at him… then an olive-skinned hand, bright against the black silk of Garth's shirt, took hold of his bicep.
It was Aldo, the bouncer. He had taken off his white shirt and vest and was wearing only a wife-beater; the muscles roped tight along his arms looked menacing. "Hey, friend. Why don't you come with me?"
Garth looked about to protest, but when he locked eyes with Aldo, he quickly lost steam. His grimace faded into a pathetic frown. "Yeah, okay."
He sidled off the stool and Aldo unhanded him, following him out.
"Thank you," Lisa whispered to him as he left.
Aldo scoffed. "Don't thank me."
Her escalating social life was giving Jackson a headache. It used to be he could watch her house for an hour after she left work, go to his hotel, shower, have a nice meal, and get a solid four hours of sleep. Now he was forced to tag along on her petty, domestic escapades.
Tonight he wasn't watching her over Cynthia's blond locks, or through a crowd of manic depressive thirty-somethings. Instead he was sitting at a two person booth, ordering a warm salad, watching Lisa unfold and refold her napkin while she waited for company.
There was a candle on her table, which Jackson was sure she hadn't requested. She stared at it like it was accusing her of something, and more than once it looked like she was about to blow it out. A bottle of wine was sleeping unopened in a bowl of ice, and there were two long-stemmed glasses on the table. He couldn't imagine Lisa drinking wine. Perhaps soon he wouldn't have to.
It was clear from the way her eyes wandered that Portabella was a restaurant she'd never been in before. The walls were a rich brick color, and all the tables were draped in white tablecloths with crimson accents. Candlelight flickered between couples and the silverware gleamed, perfectly polished. It was not the kind of place you took a woman on the first date unless you were very rich or very desperate to have sex. Most likely both.
Jackson looked respectable tonight, like he belonged, until he was a seamless part of the backdrop. There was a book in his hands, boring social commentary that he pretended to read while his eyes flashed to Lisa. She was concentrating too hard on her nervousness to notice him; he was dressed in elegant greys, hair parted down the center, brown contacts once again in. Absolutely fitting and absolutely forgettable.
Another two minutes passed and then a man took a seat opposite her. He raked his hands through his hair and introduced himself. Lisa smiled amenably and nodded her head. Her lips moved to form her name.
Blind date. Jackson had already guessed, as she hadn't met anyone or taken an interest in someone in the past week. There was always the off-chance of an out-of-town lover flying in for the weekend, but that didn't seem very Lisa. On top of that, she didn't receive any extra phone calls, just her usual Thursday night, eight o'clock from her father.
There were no candles at Jackson's table, only a square vase of fresh roses. He sneered at Portabella's obvious sexual implications, and turned the vase until it caught the silhouettes of Lisa and her guest.
The man was well-dressed but humble. Older than Lisa, older than Jackson, perhaps a widower. His ease with the environment suggested he'd been to Portabella many times, but his jerky movements with the wine made it clear none of those had been first dates.
He stopped, about to pull the bottle from the ice, to ask her if she'd like any. Afterthought. Presumptuous of him to order it in advance: a woman like Lisa would never drink before her date arrived (she wasn't exactly classy, but she had manners), and a man like her date would never assume he'd be set up with someone who didn't frequent high-end establishments.
She told him something and he flushed, setting the bottle back down. He politely waved a waiter over; the waiter nodded, and the wine was taken away.
Jackson glanced from the reflections in the vase to those casting them. Lisa's cheeks were tinged cherry pink, and Blind Date was scratching the back of his neck. The waiter soon returned with a scotch for him, and a Sea Breeze for Lisa.
Jackson fought off a grin.
She'd allowed him to buy her a drink, and sipped it without trepidation. Jackson relaxed a bit. As he'd suspected, this wasn't a case like last week's. Good, as he didn't feel like paying out his own pocket to keep the little china doll from feeling intimidated. Aldo was incredibly laidback and ignorant of mostly everything that didn't directly concern him – Jackson had to bribe handsomely for him to remove the thug from Lisa. She removed herself from the bar soon after. By then he was forced to watch from an alley lest she go looking for the generous stranger who had paid Aldo off.
His food arrived shortly before theirs, and he noticed with no small hint of humor that he and Lisa had ordered the same thing. They ate much the same as well – small bites, between long bouts of pushing their food around to make it appear more eaten. Jackson had already had dinner while Lisa was at work, and he wasn't concerned for her. If her body language didn't make it obvious, her food did: the date would end, the relationship would never begin, and Lisa would return home to eat the eggs she was saving room for.
Still, she smiled genuinely and initiated conversation when there was a lull. She, too, must have recognized the complete lack of a threat her date presented. She stumbled upon a subject he was very passionate about, nodding along as he spoke heatedly, asking questions when he was done.
Without knowing, she was stringing him along. Her eyes were glassy and her smile warm. Right now, Blind Date probably thought things were going exceptionally well. He was talking to a woman who was interested in what he had to say, who was attractive but not high maintenance. The only signal she wasn't sending off was physical. She never reached out to touch him or leaned forward. When she wasn't toying with her salad, her hands were folded in her lap and her shoulders were square. She was business-like.
Jackson wondered how she might look on a real date, people-pleasing pretence gone. To be as comfortable as she was around Cynthia, but moreso – willing to stroke her date on the arm, wipe his neck when he spilled, dig her fingers into the collar of his shirt with her back pressed against a wall and her legs…
He turned away from Lisa and the vase, and took a large forkful of his salad. His arms and neck and chest felt hot from the vivid image. Stupid. The subtext of Portabella was getting to him. He took another bite and clinically removed himself from the situation. He watched detachedly, filing away her actions and reactions, for the rest of the date.
Blind Date assumed the night a success – but then he failed to notice Lisa had said goodbye before she'd even finished her drink.
It never ceased to amaze her that in an airport, where people converge from over ocean and mountain and tundra and desert, everyone is absorbed in the minuteness of their own little world rather than the vastness of the one around them.
Recently, Lisa's had gotten a bit bigger. The space previously occupied by a preachy self-help book was now split between a rude stranger, a frazzled airport employee, an older woman in combat boots, and handsome a man in a light collared shirt.
Lisa was used to men talking to her, though it was rarely an experience she enjoyed. When propositioned, she put on a professional face and declined as politely. Rejection always came out awkward, though – far more awkward if, like Peter the Blind Date, they didn't realize she wasn't interested and called her afterward. She let him down gently with the classic "I'm very absorbed in my work right now" rather than tell him the truth: she'd only gone as penitence for dropping a bottle of white-out on Cynthia's favorite shoes.
She had to admit that the stranger was charming. But she wasn't looking for a relationship, much less in an airport, so she excused herself to "make some calls."
Instead she rolled her suitcase into the souvenir shop and disappeared behind a rack of postcards. Animals with comically enhanced features stared back at her; the nonsense helped clear her head. After flipping through Newsweek, she bought an overpriced bottle of no-name water, tucked it into her suitcase, and waded back into the outside chaos.
All the seats in the waiting area were occupied. Some people were slumped on the floor. Families were arguing or entertaining their children, and almost everyone else was absorbed in a newspaper or set of headphones.
Without a book to read, Lisa decided to go to the window and watch the airplanes take off. Their steady ascent might calm her nerves, remind her that the monstrous growl of the turbines was only to ensure they were working.
She paused before a mother and her daughter, being given a pep talk by a sharply dressed woman. Tags hung off her neck and her ascot suggested she belonged with the airport. Lisa only caught the tail-end of her sentence, but she recognized it as something similar to what she'd been told as a little girl her first time flying alone. The girl caught her eye before looking away dryly. It brought a smile to Lisa's face. The mother sighed as if used to it, took her daughter's hand, and walked off with the hostess.
When they were gone, nothing stood between Lisa, the Tex-Mex, and the familiar stranger sitting there. His eyes were wondering, his fingers drumming by a full glass. She stopped. He was obviously alone, and he looked bored. Maybe she should…
She shook the thought off. Flirting was Cynthia's thing, not hers. Lisa turned, and gasped as a cold shock slithered down her shirt.
"Oh, I am so sorry! I-it's iced, don't worry!" The woman she'd run into was fumbling with her bags and a plastic cup. Ice and whipped cream dripped down the sides. She pulled out a worn-looking napkin and reached for Lisa's collar.
"No no, no, it's fine," Lisa said, palms out. The blazer was new, a gift from Cynthia after hearing of her grandmother's death. She was annoyed, but she bit her tongue. She hadn't been watching where she was going, which made it half her fault. "It's fine!"
"Are you sure?"
Lisa had to bite the word out: "Yeah."
Beyond that, she didn't need much convincing. "Okay, okay." She tucked the napkin into her purse and turned away, yelling into the crowd. "Larry! Could you run back to Starbucks?"
Lisa ran a hand along her collarbone. Her fingers came off slick and sticky. The woman could have at least left the napkin.
In the bathroom, Lisa dampened a paper towel and ran it across her collar. Fibers scraped off the paper, curled like little white insects, and the stain was no less apparent. She sighed and stripped off her shirt, catching her reflection as it rolled off her arms.
Against her white bra and pale skin, the scar seemed to glow. It drew her eye until she had to force herself to look at her face. She still couldn't accept it as a part of her. It was just an ugly mark, someone else's ugly mark… But calling it that only made it glow brighter. She took a deep breath and turned her back to the mirror. Quickly pulling on a clean blouse, she left, eyes on the floor.
She walked by the Tex-Mex, and he was still there. His glass was half-empty and he pursed his lips, looking at nothing in particular. She watched him, a pleasant twist in the depths of her stomach. Her mind went to the little girl and the hostess, praising her bravery. With a single short, backward glance, Lisa decided she could be brave too.
She rolled her bag into the Tex-Mex, discernible as a different part of the airport only by a low fence and loud Mexican décor. Mariachi music whispered lowly from a stereo on the countertop, broken by airport announcements.
Lisa put a little bounce in her step as she approached the empty seat.
"Oh, hi," he said, setting his glass down and leaning forward.
"Hi," she said back. She motioned to the seat. "Is this… taken?"
"No, it's all yours."
She thanked him and sat, suddenly tired. Airports were supposed to make you excited, as though every day was a vacation. With all the tight smiling she'd done today, Lisa felt like she was at work.
"So, did you get your calls made?" he asked as she propped her baggage safely by her feet.
She nodded, remembering her lie and feeling caught. Her eyes darted away. "Yup, no more calls."
"Good." For some reason, that sent a rush through her. He was happy to have her time, but he wasn't possessive of it. His eyes were warm, his smile not accusing. "What'll you have?"
A drink sounded great, something to uncoil the tension in her stomach. Then she glanced from the bar to her luggage. She thought of a plane full of strangers and how she didn't need her alertness compromised.
"No," she said. "I'm okay."
"If I can guess."
She gave him an odd look. How was this game so popular that Cynthia and this man, whom she'd never met before today, both wanted to play it with her? The strangeness of the situation had her saying, "Okay."
He glanced up at the ceiling, humming in thought. He had an extremely pleasant voice, smooth but thrumming, like weathered sandpaper. It wasn't intimidating or weak, nor interrogating – just a questioning quirk. That alone drew her eyes from where they were glued to the opposite wall.
"I'm feeling vodka," he said.
That surprised her, and she did her best to hide it behind a small nod.
"Definitely sweetened," he went on. "Cosmo."
It was his first try, and already he was closer than Cynthia had ever been. She grinned but shook her head.
"No, way too common. Um… Screwdriver."
Her eyebrows puckered and she grimaced. She hadn't had a screwdriver since she was eighteen. One more guess and she'd stop him, maybe reward his efforts by ordering a Sea Breeze.
He laughed. "No, way too boring. So that leaves me with the simplicity of a grapefruit or the complexity of pineapple…"
He was very intuitive, which struck her as both strange and alluring. Airports tended to breed the impatient and the simple; that he was applying lateral thinking to something as mundane as her drink order had her curious.
"Grapefruit. Sea Breeze."
She kept her face carefully blank. There were hundreds of drinks out there, scores containing vodka and dozens with grapefruit. Lisa suddenly felt exposed, overcome with the need to tug on her collar. Was she so easy to read to this almost perfect stranger?
She watched apprehension flicker across his face. Yes, he was charming and attractive, and alarmingly perceptive. It had been a long time since she'd met a man like that – no one knew much about her, not even something as insignificant as her favorite liquor. It was as if, without even trying, he'd discovered a little secret of hers.
Strangely, though, she didn't want to leave. The scar on her breast burned quietly – she felt for a moment that everyone could see it – but she wanted to be around this man. She wanted to know why he knew her, without knowing her at all.
And, the slightest bit, Lisa wanted to be like him. She wanted to keep him guessing, as he had her doing.
With that in mind, she turned to the bartender. "Can I have a Bay Breeze?"