Wingman

by August Niehaus

 

Savas doesn’t give the woman a second glance when she deposits herself and her oversized red handbag on the bar stool to his right. His attention is on his best friend, whose reaction to the story of Kimberleigh breaking up with him is distressingly underwhelming.

“This was worse than anything Celia ever did to you,” Savas barks, slamming his whiskey down for emphasis. The bar’s other patrons twitch and subtly turn away from him, and the bartender sends a dark glower his way. Savas meekly raises the glass towards one and all, his eyebrow twitching, and continues speaking to Russell in a more level tone, “I might as well have been a tablecloth at a cheap restaurant: there by design, and still undesirable.”

Russell might be hiding a smirk behind his beer glass. “For a second I thought you were gonna say ‘sticky and dirty.’”

Savas pulls a face, but he doesn’t bother hiding his amusement. “You would not be wrong.”

“Maybe it’s just high time you go after different women, Sav.”

“Hi,” says the woman with the red handbag right on cue, leaning in.

Russell raises both brows, his unspoken words coming across clearly: And you might as well start right the hell now. He leans back, and Savas knows there will be no more sympathetic ear until he at least pretends to give it the old Reed College try.

Savas sighs, guzzles whiskey, then turns to the woman. He’s surprised to find that, when he actually gives her his attention, she’s quite attractive: she’s got those pouty red lips and thick eyelashes and straightened hair he likes in photos. Still, he won’t appear too eager, so he doesn’t ditch the sullen look.

“Hullo,” he says.

She gives him this adorable smile, up and through those lashes, and Savas melts a little despite his post-Kimberleigh certainty he would never love again.

They talk about the unseasonable sun, and their shared favorite obscure book from childhood, and the whole time, she’s shooting less-than-discreet glances from his hands down to his midriff and back again.

Savas feels a budding sense of urgency, above and below his waist. Maybe this girl is worth his time.  He can see them in his mind’s eye, tangled over the threshold of her nice apartment uptown, barely making it through the doorway before their clothes are spilling onto the floor. In the morning she’ll bring a silver pot of coffee to share in bed.

He hides his salacious grin behind his hand as he nods at the details of her endless story. If she’ll just stop talking already, he can show her just how charming Savas Forakis can be, when he gives half a shit. He nudges her knee with his under the table, and is gratified to feel her shiver in response.

Russell interjects something that, through the haze of whiskey, sits pleasantly in Savas’s heart, the kind of thing only someone like Russell knows about him. The girl laughs and leans back far on her stool, looking Russell up and down.

Now Savas realizes the pressure below his waist isn’t the firmess he expected, but rather an urgent need to use the restroom. He finds a long beat in her storytelling, excuses himself, and tries to hide his glee as he squeezes into the narrow hallway and then the restroom. It reeks of urinal cake, but Savas doesn’t care; he’s getting laid.

He washes his hands, humming a tune he doesn’t remember the name of, and saunters back out to the bar.

There’s no one there. No Russell, no woman (shit, what was her name again? Maddie? Matthie?). Just the bartender’s perpetual scowl.

“Excuse me,” Savas says, though the bartender is already staring at him, “did you see where my friends went?”

“Your friends,” the bartender says through his teeth, “went out back.” He tips his chin at the small mountain of cash where Russell’s drink had been. “They both looked like they wanted to get out of here in a hurry.”

Savas dismisses the man: Fucking weirdo. He stops at the bar long enough to count the cash and make sure it covers his drinks too, then gives the bartender a nod and ducks out into the dark, wet alley.

He stands on that top stair, lets his eyes adjust to the gloom. Somewhere in the alley, a woman cries out. Savas stiffens, ready to spring.

The cry comes again, but this time it carries a name with it: “Ahh-hhh! Russell!”

Savas sees his friend and the woman, pressed torso to torso against the brick wall. Her hands cup his face. His hands clamp firmly around her hips.

Savas’s eyes widen and he whispers Russell’s name in disbelief. Treachery. A jagged knife only a friend as close as a brother could slam into Savas’s back.

Numb to his fingers, he turns and stumbles away down the alley. If Russell notices him, or calls after him, it’s lost in the roaring in Savas’s ears.

 

He drops his number, gets a new one. It’s the only way to cut Russell off forever, to ensure that the pain and indignation of Russell’s betrayal will never haunt Savas again. Hatred for his once-friend keeps Savas awake for a week, coughing and snarling at pictures of them from the holiday work party. He finally asks his doctor for a prescription to “knock him the fuck out.”

When he wakes from his 30-hour sleep (or near-sleep), Savas stumbles to the bathroom and checks the mirror to see if he looks as bad as he feels. Definitely. The bags under his eyes sag like his hopes. He snuffles, wipes his nose on his sleeve, and decides: No more of this shit.

A shower, shave, and careful outfit selection later, and Savas saunters down to the bar below his apartment. Upon inspection, he decides it’s too divey for the kind of woman—or new best friend—he’d like, so he goes back up and posts on Craigslist.

Do you like to hang out with swanky rich men with bloated trust funds and egos? Well, then click on a different listing, because that’s not me. I’m just a chill dude looking for a male BFF and a girlfriend. I love Iron Peril, paddleboats, puppy snuggles, push-ups, and potato chips.

The replies flow into his inbox. He selects a few, spends an hour ranking and re-ranking the pseudonyms on a spreadsheet, and then sends the first one his phone number and the name of a cheap restaurant he knows at least has those okay tacos.

Sure enough, Savas’s rankings hold: #1 is a just-less snappy dresser than he is, and a bit more out of shape. But Troy’s funny, and they both like a lot of the same bands. When Savas realizes an hour has passed since he last opened Twitter under the table, he gives Troy his real phone number and invites him to a party he heard about through #9. He’ll ask #2 out tonight, see if she’ll go with him to the selfsame party.

 

The music turns from chest-thrumming bass to a dance remix of Iron Peril’s “Crossroad of My Dreams.” Savas and Troy smirk at each other; they’d been texting about the band that very morning. Savas gets a little shiver of belonging down the small of his back. It leaves him with a sense of unease, so similar to how hanging out with Russell made him feel.

He and Troy follow #2’s pink hair through Club Pyre. Savas is looking forward to sitting next to Rhonda on the small club benches. The music quiets to something they can hear over right as they sit down, so they take advantage and make the requisite small talk: exchange names and professions (she’s a animal cruelty investigator), how’d you meet, how’d you meet, oh, Craigslist, us too, that’s so funny.

“This is the first time I’ve been in a club since I was a scout,” Troy confesses, and they all roar with laughter. Savas appreciates a comedian for a wingman. Makes him look like the serious choice, the mature one.

The music comes back up, and Savas grabs Rhonda’s hand and pulls her onto the dance floor. She’s got a great swing that brings her hips all the way around to bump his sides, and Savas feels his wall crumbling a little. Rhonda has an intoxicating perfume in her pink hair, which glows in the blacklights. He reaches out and brushes the tips of his fingers against strands dancing across her shoulder.

She shudders and lurches away from him. For a gut-wrenching second, Savas thinks she felt him touch her and pulled away, and his fingertips burn with shame and anger. But her jerky movements are completely controlled; she’s dancing.

Towards Troy.

Troy looks as surprised as Savas feels. But when Rhonda’s dramatic moves fling her into his arms, Troy doesn’t pull away. He catches her, and he makes eye contact with Savas.

Rhonda pulls Troy down for a deep kiss.

A camera overhead flashes as Savas shoves a bouncer out of his way, slamming his shoulder against the front door. They’ll have a picture of him up in Pyre soon enough. It doesn’t matter. He’ll never come back.

 

Savas invites #3 to the ballet, assuming he’ll never run into someone he knows there. Right away, he and Misty find quiet peace when they stand close to one another, something he’s never felt with a woman before. On a whim, just as they’re standing by the elevator to take their seats, Savas grabs her hand and waits until the other patrons stuff into the box before pulling her in for a soft kiss.

This might be love. The thought slips past his guard before he can crush it. Savas steps lightly onto Cloud 9.

“Jared!” Misty calls out as she breaks off the kiss. Then she’s waving down her ex from college, her face a mix of shock and delight as she introduces Savas to “the one who got away.” Not five minutes later Misty and Jared are walking away, giggling, fingers intertwined. This might be love, Savas thinks miserably. Cloud 9 drops a thunderstorm on him.

#4 and #5 manage to keep their hands off each other for a few weeks. Everything is going beautifully; Savas has someone to listen to his complaints and his successes. But then one day Savas drops by her workplace at lunchtime, and on a whim decides to get her a sandwich from her favorite deli; and that’s where he finds that #5 managed not only to get #4 a sandwich first, but also a hand-job under the table. Savas knocks the napkin holder off their table and exits the office plaza in a foul rage.

He tries mixing three, two ladies and a wingman: but #6, #7, and #9 (#8 never writes back after the invitation to a paint dance party) suddenly acknowledge their latent polyamory in the midst of smearing paint on each other. Turns out it’s not inclusive polyamory. One of them asks him to close the door on his way out.

Savas tries harder to clean up, be a better listener, ask more questions.

#11 and #13 duke it out in the alley for #12’s affections, and Savas gets kicked in the ribs for attempting to break up the fight.

He pays a local dating coach to teach him how to bring his most authentic self to the proverbial table.

#14 falls in love with Savas’s cousin. The bill for the Lyft home is $106.

He intentionally steps outside of his comfort zone, trying something he’s never tried before: empathy.

#27’s primary partner discovers a deep well of monogamy in the middle of strip board game night, along with a powerful one-two punch. Savas leaves their house without his favorite Adidas jacket or his dignity.

 

By the time Savas is well into his third spreadsheet, and he walks out of the bathroom to find #33 tipping her stool to stick her tongue down the bartender’s throat, he isn’t even surprised. He flicks a five on the cheap lacquered countertop.

“She will pay for the rest,” he mutters, assuming neither of them is listening to him. He’s right. They’re not.

Savas steps into a downpour of near-freezing February rain. He barely feels it seeping into his coat. What kind of loser drives the women he pursues into the closest available pair of other arms? The question picks at him like a crow worrying at a corpse.

With every step Savas takes, he feels parts of himself slough away as he’s unable to answer the questions to which they belong. His first girlfriend, Holly, stayed with him for years. Seven years, in fact. But was she faithful to him—ever?

He knows and he fears the answer. His trust falls away.

Then there was Kimberleigh, his only other love. They dated online for three years before they even had the money to meet halfway, in Denver. They had one blissful night of physical passion, and then suddenly Kim was cold, distant, bluntly mentioning their mutual online friend KrakenLackin9. Was it merely touching him that had turned her away?

Savas knows the answer. His ego falls away.

When he blinks back into reality, he realizes he’s on the stoop of an old diner. The rain pooled on the sagging fabric overhang spills in a thin, silky waterfall, creating a curtain between him and his lostness.

Savas stands in the aura of the buzzing, flickering neon sign for a few minutes before he gathers enough courage to push through the door.

One of the elderly couples sitting perpendicular to the door glance his way, but otherwise the patrons ignore him. A cloud of isolation gathers over Savas’s head, and he flops into the booth closest to the door. Someone sets a menu in front of him and he stares at it, wondering what he should order for his first meal alone for the rest of his life.

He’s trying to decide between the breakfast sampler and country fried steak when a coffee cup lands on the table across from him, and a sharply-dressed man in his fifties follows it.

Savas frowns, gathering all of the darkness of the cloud over his head into the look, but the man is unperturbed. He cups the coffee in both hands and blows the steam away gently. Hypnotized, Savas watches it curl into something resembling a many-legged horse, but it disperses before he can be sure.

He forcibly brings his gaze back to the stranger’s face. “What do you want?”

The older man shrugs. “I am the only other lone diner in this establishment. I thought perhaps we could ease one another’s loneliness for the evening. Share a cup of coffee, maybe a bite of cake.”

“What the hell!” Savas feels his temper rising; something about this man feels off, dangerous. Ancient. It stirs something primal in him. “Can a man not eat a meal by himself in peace?”

“Peace?” the old man repeats, then laughs harshly. “You are not at peace. How long have you known?”

“Known what?” Savas wants to throttle the man, throw the coffee in his smug face, anything. Anything but hear the terrible, inevitable truth about to leave those thin lips.

“About your power,” the old man says.

Power.

Perhaps the truth is not so terrible after all.

In a low voice, the man tells Savas about the gods across the world who thrived in a time of greater belief. About Olympus, and Valhalla, and the other heavens. About the power locked in the essence of a god, which could manifest at any time in any form.

Savas’s eyes glow with borrowed pride. The eggs and toast the waiter brings him take on new spice. He sips delicately at his ice water and thinks about all of those dumb wannabes and rude Instagram slaves and Craigslist addicts he tried to date.

As if reading his mind, the old man pulls out his Android phone and sets it on the table, spinning it around to face Savas. There’s a big red Cupid logo with the name “Smittn” underneath.

“Turns out there’s something even better for a god than belief,” the man says, “and that’s money. Want to make some money, kid? I’m history’s best salesman. You’re history’s best matchmaker. Together…”

Whatever motivational speech the man launches into, Savas tunes out. Instead, he drifts into a daydream: sweeping over his very own mansion, soaring past the disbelieving faces of Kimberleigh and Holly and #1 through #33, coming to rest on his piles of money and throngs of adoring fans. No shortage of dates. No shortage of best friends. And best of all, he won’t have to try.

Savas lunges across the table to grip the old man’s hand in his. Their eyes meet. Something cold glitters in the old man’s gaze.

“I am Savas Forakis,” he says firmly. His eyes land on the Smittn logo again. “Otherwise known as…Cupid. Consider us in business.”

“And I’m Sven Wilder,” the old man says, showing very sharp teeth when he smiles, “otherwise known as…Loki.”

THE END