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Playing to Win by Sophie Stern (1)

Gilbert

Present Day

 

“Drinking Games. What kind of a name for a bar is that?”

“The good kind.”

“You’re full of shit,” I look sideways at Craig, but he just shrugs. He doesn’t care what I think about his haunt. It’s his favorite place to go when he’s in town. Apparently he used to have a thing for the owner. I’m not sure, exactly. “It looks like an uppity place some rich white girl opened on daddy’s credit card.”

“You have no idea who you’re talking about,” Craig laughs and strides across the parking lot toward the bar, leaving me standing by the side of the car. Never one to be left behind, I hurry to catch up with him.

He pulls the door open and I follow him into the little bar. It closes behind me and I take a look around the space. It’s wide and open, but it’s not as bad as I thought it was going to be. It’s not too fancy.

There’s a bar at the right side of the room and the rest of the space is filled with tables, chairs, pool tables, and a dart board. There’s no dance floor, which is good because I’d be walking right out of the room. There is, however, a jukebox, which seems to be playing country music.

Gross.

“Hey Craig,” a pretty brunette behind the bar says. “The usual?”

“You know me,” he winks at her and slides onto a barstool. I join him.

“Who’s your friend?” She asks, looking over her shoulder. She looks me up and down, but this doesn’t bother me as much as it should. I’m new, and I know that in my suit, I’m a little out of place.

“Old college buddy. He just moved back to town. This is Gilbert.”

“Welcome to Drinking Games, Gilbert,” the brunette says. “Any friend of Craig’s is a friend of mine. What’s your poison?”

“Smooth Criminal,” I say, and she nods. Then she turns back around, giving me a great view of her curvy ass in her tight jeans.

“Careful,” Craig whispers. “She’s not going to fuck you.”

“I can still look.”

“Don’t,” he warns me. “If you want to come back, treat her with respect. I’m serious,” he adds when I roll my eyes. “Jennifer is my friend.”

“Whatever,” I look around the room to see who else is in this place. There are a couple of girls playing pool. Judging by the laughter and their tiaras, I’d say it’s someone’s bridal shower. Maybe a couple of someone’s. Some college guys are playing darts, laughing and singing along with the jukebox as they do. Then there are the couples.

There aren’t many, but there are enough that my heart stings. It shouldn’t. There’s no reason for me to be sad to see other people in love. What happened to me? That was one time, and so very long ago. It’s time to move on. It’s time to remember that there is good in the world, and it starts right here, tonight, with my friend.

The bartender delivers our drinks and sets them down. Craig and I both start tabs, and then we start to drink to the night.

“How’s work going?” He asks.

“Do you really want to know?”

“Not really.”

“That’s what I thought. What about you? How’s Jason doing?”

“He’s doing well. Just started first grade. Getting big.”

“Good kid.”

Craig is a single dad doing the best job he can raising his son, Jason. For someone whose wife walked out on him years ago, Craig seems completely put-together. He’s got a good job and a nice house and his son is polite and well-mannered. There’s nothing that would indicate he’s having a hard time with life, but I know Craig, and I have my suspicions that he’s lonely.

It’s not easy being on your own like that.

The music changes and we hear hollering and laughter. Craig and I both turn around to see one of the girls from the bridal shower climbing onto a table.

“Dude, she’s going to break her leg,” I say, looking around. Isn’t someone going to make her hop down?

“Don’t worry,” I hear Jennifer’s voice from behind me. She’s leaning eagerly over the bar. “It’s a sturdy table. Not my first time having drunk groups of women in here.”

I suppose that’s one thing to consider when you open a bar: how many drunk girls are going to want to dance?

We turn and watch as she continues dancing to the song. Her short blonde hair frames her face, and as she dances, I can’t help but think she looks like some sort of model.

Or angel.

But I won’t get ahead of myself.

Eventually, she hops down and wipes her brow before heading toward the bar.

“Here comes trouble,” Jennifer whistles.

“Hey,” the girl leans over the bar. I try to keep my face normal, but it’s hard. She’s beautiful, and her dancing was incredible. The fact that she was brave enough, bold enough, crazy enough to climb up on stage doesn’t escape me. Most women aren’t that brave. Most people aren’t that brave. “Can I get a whiskey, please?”

“On the rocks?”

“Yeah.”

“You got it.”

The woman turns to Craig and me and smiles. “I’m Samantha,” she says.

Craig holds his hand out. “Craig,” he says, and Samantha shakes his hand.

“And what’s your name?” Samantha shoots me one of those smiles, and I’m done. It’s over. I’m smitten. I shouldn’t be instantly taken by this woman at the bar, but I am.

“Gilbert.”

“Ah,” she smiles. “You know, I used to love Anne of Green Gables when I was a kid.”

“So did my mom,” I chuckle. It’s an unusual name, to be sure, but it seems like the nerdy girls always know exactly how my parents picked my name.

“That’s amazing.”

“Yeah, well, she’s a pretty incredible woman.”

Jennifer drops off Samantha’s drink and she starts to sip it.

“No mixed drinks for you?” I ask, and she shakes her head.

“Nah. Way too much sugar in mixers,” she says. Then she lowers her voice conspiratorially and adds, “Besides, this makes me seem pretty badass.”

Craig chokes back a laugh, and I slap him on the back.

“Having trouble there, buddy?”

“I’m fine. I’m fine,” he says. “I’m just going to go…over here.” He hops off the barstool and moves to the end of the bar. Jennifer goes over and the two of them instantly strike up a conversation.

“Your friend is an interesting guy,” Samantha comments.

“You have no idea.”

“So what brings you guys out tonight? Just having some guy time? Or are you here to pick up girls?”

“Do I look like I’m here to pick up girls?” I glance down at my plain button-down and jeans. Not exactly “I’ve got money” material.

“You look like you’re here to have a good time.”

“Something like that.”

“Me too. See that girl over there?” She points to the redhead in the center of the group of women. “That’s my little sister.”

“Cute.”

“Not really,” Samantha wrinkles her nose. “She’s a huge bitch, and her fiancé is just as bad.”

“What’s so bad about him?”

“He cheats, for one thing, and he lies, for another.”

“Personally, the lying would bother me more than the cheating.”

“Sounds like you speak from experience.”

“I’ve had my share of long-term relationships, as I’m sure you have.”

“Tell me something,” she asks, looking me dead in the eye. “Does it ever get any easier?”

“I could lie to you.”

“I’m strong enough for the truth.”

“Then no, not really. It doesn’t get any easier. It just…changes. You know, the pain of betrayal never really goes away. It stays with you and leaves a scar. This is a good thing. It keeps you from getting hurt again in the future, but you know, the thing about betrayal is that you can never really predict it. Even with scars, even with precautions, it can still happen again.”

“How do you do it?” Samantha sips her whiskey slowly. Then she sets the glass down and twirls around on the barstool. “How do you love again after you’ve been hurt like that? I don’t understand. I mean, I’m not exactly an expert on love, but it seems to me that once you’ve been scarred, trying again is a tough thing.”

“That’s the beauty of love, Samantha. Every time feels like the first time.”

She looks up at me like she’s never had such words of wisdom, and even though it’s crazy, I suddenly have the urge to just kiss her. Just grab her and kiss her. She’s cute, and sweet, and although she was dancing on the tables just a minute ago, she seems almost innocent in her understanding of the world.

Something tells me she’s not, though.

Something tells me she’s seen heartache and pain, but she still has an air of hope about her.

“You were hurt before,” I say. It’s not a question.

“A few times. Part of growing up, right?”

“Wish it didn’t have to be that way.”

“Yeah,” she smiles sadly. “Me too.”

The song on the jukebox changes to a slow one, and in the spirit of friendship, in the spirit of fun, I grab her and pull her to her feet.

“Come on, Samantha. Dance with me.”

Every eye in the room turns to look at us, but I’m completely focused on the little blonde pixie in front of me. I’m completely focused on her smile, on her sweet face. I’m completely focused on why I’m so attracted to someone I’ve only just met.

The song continues and I’m surprised when Samantha gets up on her tip-toes and kisses me softly.

“What was that for?” I ask.

“For giving me hope,” she smiles. “It was something I needed tonight. Thank you.”

“Anything for you,” I whisper, and I’m surprised that I mean it. I pull Samantha close, and as the song continues playing, we dance.

We dance for the past.

We dance for the future.

We dance for the night.

And we dance for hope.

 

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