It was a reasonable question, but I didn't know how to answer her. Telling the truth didn't seem to be an option. Not because I was afraid of what she’d think if I told her about the numbers, but because something inside me said that if I told anyone about them, the numbers would simply disappear without my ever finding out their true purpose.
So I lied.
"I was just across the street getting gas, and when I saw the sign outside I suddenly felt like getting a drink,” I said.
“Is that something you do often? Go drinking by yourself?”
“No, not really. Actually, I can’t remember the last time I was even in a bar,” I said.
Wanting to change the subject I asked her how long she’d been working there.
"Almost six months," she said.
“Did you work at another bar before this one then?”
“No, this is actually my first bartending gig.”
I asked what she did before, but her answer was vague. Something told me she was being evasive for a reason so I decided not to dig any deeper.
"So what about you? What do you do now?" she asked.
"It's kind of a long story,” I finally said.
"I don't mind long stories," she said, and hopped back onto the counter behind her.
And so I told her about where I worked, and the kind of work I did, knowing all too well how unimpressive everything sounded. Then I told her what I did before, and how I'd quit that job to play poker full time, causing me to be in my current situation. Then at some point I realized I was talking too much. This wasn’t like me, I thought, and I wondered if it was because I hadn’t really talked to anyone in such a long time.
“I’m sorry. We don’t see each other for fifteen years, and I immediately lay all my problems on you,” I said.
Iris looked at me and smiled as if to say it was perfectly okay.
“Don’t be sorry. It sounds like you've been having a rough time. No wonder you wanted a drink!"
I figured she was just being nice, but I appreciated what she said. Then I tried again to learn more about her.
"So what about you? If I remember correctly, you and your dad moved up to Seattle, right? When did you move back?”
“I came down here for college. I dropped out during my sophomore year, but ended up staying here anyway."
“Why’d you drop out?”
“It’s kind of hard to explain. Let’s just say what I learned in school was that school wasn’t for me,” she said.
I wondered what had happened to her, but since Iris didn’t seem willing to tell me anything more than what she’d said, I had to let it go. Then I caught a glimpse of the book she’d been reading when I first came in. It was sitting by the register so I pointed at it and asked, “Any good?”
Iris turned to see what I was pointing at. When she realized what it was she hopped back down and grabbed the book and brought it over.
“You ever read any Roberto Bolano?”
I shook my head.
“He’s one of my favorite writers,” she said and put the book in front of me. On the cover across the top was the author's name, but it was the title of the book that really got my attention.
“2666,” I read.
Though the numbers weren’t the same, I couldn’t help but see the symmetry between these numbers and those of my birthday.
“Are you still writing?” I asked, and drank what was left of my gin and tonic.
“No, not anymore,” she said.
Then she pointed at my empty glass and asked if I wanted another.
"Sure," I said.
While Iris made my drink I told her how I used to look her up online to see if she'd published anything.
“Really. And I’d always be disappointed when nothing popped up.”
“You know I wondered about you, too. I even looked you up on Facebook once,” she said, finishing off my drink with a wedge of lime and a straw. “All I could see was your profile picture, but it was of you and a girl. I assumed she was your girlfriend.”
I remembered the picture she was talking about.
“That wasn’t my idea, posting that picture,” I told her as she placed my drink on the counter in front of me.
“So was that your girlfriend?”
“Yeah, but that's ancient history now,” I said.
I wanted to ask if she was seeing anyone. I figured someone that looked like her couldn’t possibly be single. So instead I took a sip of my drink since I didn’t want to know for certain.
We were quiet then, neither of us saying anything for what felt like several minutes, but there was nothing awkward about the silence, as if each of us felt comfortable thinking our own thoughts. Or at least that’s how I felt until I saw Iris check her watch. Was I boring her? I wondered.
“Hey, you want to go somewhere with me right now?” she asked.
“Yup. Right now,” she said. “It’s okay, I don’t think anyone else is going to show up tonight, and the owner won’t mind if I close early. What do you say?”
“Sure, but where do you want to go?”
“That’s for me to know and you to find out,” she said, coyly.
I finished the rest of my drink as Iris went about closing the bar. After she was finished we went out through a backdoor, where a white Prius was parked.
“You're really not going to tell me where we're going?” I asked once we were inside.
“You're a smart guy, it shouldn't be that hard to figure out."
Then she started the car and Radiohead’s “Everything in its right place” began to play from her speakers. We rolled our windows down as we hit the road, and I focused on the lyrics as if everything had meaning.
Despite what she said it wasn’t until we arrived at our destination that I finally figured out where we were going.
“I can’t remember the last time I was at the beach, let alone at night,” I told her as she was parking.
“Come on,” she said, and the two of us got out. I followed Iris down a long flight of stairs just off the sidewalk. Halfway down I noticed dozens of people lined up along the beach, some sitting, some standing, but all of them seemed to be staring out at the water. I wondered what they were doing there. As we walked towards them I could hear the sound of the waves growing louder and louder with every step, until finally, we were close enough to actually see them. At first I didn’t understand what I was looking at. The water appeared to be glowing from within.
“It’s called a red tide,” Iris said.
I’d heard of the phenomenon, but it was nothing like I would have imagined. The two of us sat down and watched wave after wave hurl itself onto the shore, each one emitting a bright flash of phosphorescence into the night. As I stared at the whitewater avalanching towards us, I suddenly felt as if I’d entered the realm of the surreal, like the world was now a place where anything was possible. It was at that moment that a memory I’d all but forgotten suddenly bubbled up to the surface.
“I just remembered the first time I saw the ocean,” I said.
Iris looked at me, waited for me to go on, so I proceeded to tell her about when my family first arrived in America. I told her how I hadn’t wanted to come, and that I’d only agreed when they promised to take me to see the beach as soon as we arrived. I told her about the gift shop, and the shell, and the dream I had afterwards about the man sleeping inside a giant seashell.
When I finished talking, Iris was looking at me with this serene expression on her face, like she’d just witnessed someone performing an act of extraordinary kindness. No one had ever looked at me like that before, and I realized in that moment, that to have someone look at me that way was the one thing I’d ever truly wanted.
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