Or: Narcissus and Echo Get A Second Chance
You think you're being discreet when you watch me from your table in the corner.
You avert your gaze both too late and too quickly when I look at you, and you haven't touched your drink since the server brought it more than fifteen minutes ago, but you keep fiddling with the coaster. Your nails dig into the soft cardboard and I imagine them digging into my back instead.
I catch your eyes and nearly laugh at your troubled expression. Do you think I'm unused to attracting attention in bars? Do you think you're the first person who can't take their eyes off me?
And I'm supposed to be the vain one.
You've bought me a drink. The server delivers the high-stemmed glass with a flourish, the garnet liquid within licking up its delicate walls. The perfect storm that you can hold in your hand.
I turn to you and raise the glass in a silent toast. For a moment, I'm sure you're going to look away again, but then you mirror the motion. In the subdued light, the curve of your smile is a bow being drawn.
The wine leaves a tart flush down my throat and settles in my stomach like an anchor. I don't need food or drink to survive—I use the word survive loosely—but when your existence is abstracted to a set of ideas someone else has about you, the burn of alcohol becomes a welcome refuge.
It's one way to feel like my body is my own.
My eyes snag on the reflection in the glass. I've changed—a slow inevitability of time and faith's fickle tides. Freckles and beauty marks form constellations where there used to only be a smooth, even complexion. The lines of my face are sharper, harder in a way I would have disliked in my youth but now I find lived-in, comforting. The faint shadow of a stubble darkens my cheeks.
The gods and heroes of Olympus never fell, no, nothing as grand as that. We faded, slowly; some of us are the faintest whisper along the fringes of collective memory, while others—such as me—haunt seedy bars looking for the next pastime.
And sure enough, you wander over. I'm halfway through my drink when you perch on the stool next to mine. Your perfume reminds me of the warm west wind: a cocktail of lemon, sandalwood and bergamot that's out of place amidst the age-darkened wooden furniture and the beer ad pinups on the walls.
I swivel my stool towards you, idly wondering if you won't cower from my point-blank attention, but you hold my gaze with eyes like a moonless night. I wait.
I'm always curious about the first thing people say when they're trying to pick someone up. It reveals a lot of character: Are you going to open with a compliment, or a general observation about our surroundings? I hope you don't start sharing your embarrassing little secrets with me; I'm in no mood to play confession.
But you settle for a simple: "Hi." It's more the idea of the word, barely loud enough to be heard over the dinny turn-of-the-century rock blasting from the speakers.
"Hi yourself." I lean my elbow on the counter and your eyes drift to my shirt as it falls open with the movement. They linger on my exposed chest, on the twin crescent scars on my ribcage, but then you're back to smiling at me.
You're easier to talk to than most. When it's my turn to buy the next round, I pick a sparkling wine because the bubbles of carbonation remind me of the lilt of your voice. You feel like someone I knew a lifetime ago, but in my case, a lifetime is a very long while, so I commit to getting to know you again instead.
The steps of this dance are all too familiar. Using the loud music as an excuse to lean closer, our fingers brushing when I pass you a napkin. Your skin is smooth and cool; your nails are painted a pearlescent pink. There's something ethereal about you, as though the gentlest breeze would blow you away, but the more we talk, the more a gentle blush overtakes the translucent quality of your skin.
I see something of myself reflected in you, but I can't name it. I might not want to.
The bartender calls for last orders. I haven't realised that the rest of the patrons have drained out of the bar, leaving behind only the vestiges of another night lost to the haze of alcohol and cigarette smoke. We're the only people remaining.
"Will you come home with me?"
Your eyes gleam with curiosity and longing you don't bother to disguise. You bite your lip while you wait for my response. I'm transfixed with the indentation that your teeth leave, the pink that rushes in when they're gone.
Warmth pools in my stomach, as though it's a human heart that beats inside my chest and not a waning facsimile. For a moment, I let myself believe there's no difference.
We stand up at the same time. I finish the rest of my drink in a single motion and for once, I'm not looking for a glimpse of my reflection in the liquid.
For once, I don't need to.
Leon Tomova (they/them, he/him) is a queer writer, artist, and recent psychology graduate based in Germany. They create speculative fiction in various formats; currently, their main focus is drafting their debut novel about a crew of gay pirates. In their time away from the keyboard, Leon practices parkour and fencing, pursuing their ambition to become a real-life swashbuckler. You can find them on Twitter @decadencethief.