With my arms crossed, I look up at the neon sign flashing above the pub, fully aware I probably look more like a petulant five-year-old than a disgruntled twenty-five-year-old.
“Can we go somewhere else, please?”
“Come on, Claire,” my best friend Kara says, pulling on my sleeve. “I promised you a night out, and this place has the hottest bartenders in all of Melbourne.”
“Yes, and Dylan James is one of them,” I point out. “I can’t face him. Not tonight.”
“I’ve never seen him here on a Thursday before. I’m pretty sure it’s his night off.”
“Unless you know that for a fact…”
“On the off chance he is in there, we’ll tell him you’re drinking away your sorrows. I’m sure you two can play nice for an evening.”
“Yeah, right,” I mutter.
“For goodness’ sake, Claire,” Kara says, sounding exasperated. “I’m freezing my arse off out here when I could be staring at the man candy inside. I don’t mind suffering for a good cause, but your preoccupation with avoiding Dylan is ridiculous. He’s a stirrer and a tease, but he’s hardly the devil.”
Whether or not Dylan James qualifies as the devil-in-disguise is purely a matter of opinion, and had I known ahead of time that Kara was planning to bring me here of all places, I would have called off the evening, but she refused point-blank to spill the beans. Now I know why. Kara often comes here after work, so I know she likes the place. But she’s also well aware that I don’t, and for good reason. Now our friends are waiting for us inside, and I’ll put a downer on everyone’s night if I walk away. Talk about bulldozed!
“Fine,” I say with a heavy sigh.
“Thank you,” Kara says, rubbing her bare arms. “If Dylan’s around, I’ll personally tell him to lay off you tonight, okay?”
Before I can beg her not to say anything at all about me to Dylan, Kara is walking into the bar. After sucking in a breath, I follow. With the lights dimmed, it takes a while for my eyes to adjust. Once I have my bearings, I cast my gaze over the people working behind the bar. Some of the tension eases out of me when I realise I can’t see Dylan anywhere.
“See?” Kara says, gesturing around the place. “No Dylan tonight. We’re in the clear. Oh look, I see Danni and Tori over there.”
“What took you guys so long?” Tori asks as we approach the four-seater table the girls have snagged.
“I had to drag her in here,” Kara says, jerking her head in my direction.
Tori grins. “Don’t worry. I haven’t seen Dylan around. It must be his night off.”
I try not to look as miserable as I feel as I sit down. “Good.”
“Cheer up, Claire Bear,” Danni says affectionately. “It’s been too long since it’s just been the four of us.”
“Three months to be exact,” Tori agrees, picking up her pocket mirror to check her makeup. “I’m sure the last time we went out drinking was to commiserate Claire’s last break-up.”
I carefully place my handbag at my feet. “Thanks for that reminder.”
Danni shrugs. “Hey, any excuse for a party.”
I’m about to point out that being dumped is no reason to party, but I stop myself when Kara shoots me a warning look.
“Don’t pretend you’re heartbroken over the guy, Claire. A man who insists on having a manicure every week is more high maintenance than Tori is.”
“Hey! I’m so not high maintenance,” Tori instantly objects, snapping her pocket mirror shut.
“My point is,” Kara continues, unabated, “you weren’t even together for two months before you asked him whether he wanted to meet your mother.”
“Two months is not an unreasonable amount of time.”
“Maybe not, but not only did he baulk at the suggestion, he flat out dumped you. If that doesn’t tell you that he wasn’t Mr Right, nothing will. In my opinion, him dumping you is definitely cause for celebration.”
“To Claire finding the next Mr Right,” Tori toasts, raising her glass of white wine to her lips.
Kara scowls. “Don’t encourage her. The last seven guys she dated were losers with a capital L.”
Heat sweeps up my neck and face. “They weren’t that bad.”
“Oh, they were,” Kara says.
Danni and Tori murmur their concurrence, and I stare at my friends. “You thought they were all losers?”
Tori nods but won’t meet my gaze.
“The last guy kept a pocketbook of all his expenses…in his pocket,” Danni reminds me. “He couldn’t go to the supermarket to buy gum without having to write it down.”
“I appreciated his conscientiousness.”
“He wasn’t normal, Claire,” Tori says quietly.
“Forget it,” Kara says to Tori. “She doesn’t care what we think. As long as the guy ticks all the boxes on her list, she’s going to date him.”
“Zero successes in seven attempts reflects a problem with the list,” Danni states bluntly.
It’s true that I’ve struck out in the dating department this year. And last year. And the year before that. But I’ve spent a good amount of time fine-tuning the list of qualities I want in my perfect man. And because I know what I want, I find men I’m compatible with. So, the problem isn’t the list, per se. It’s what comes after every time I start dating a suitable candidate. It’s fair to say I haven’t really connected with any of my boyfriends. I certainly haven’t fallen in love with any of them. And they haven’t exactly fallen in love with me, either.
Considering I had zero chemistry with the last “loser”, two months wasn’t a bad run. The reason I hung in there for as long as I did was that Evan seemed as passionate about putting down roots and starting a family as I am.
“I need a drink,” Kara says, standing up. “Who wants what?”
“Another Sunrise for me please,” Danni says.
Tori nods at her half full glass of white wine. “I’m right.”
“Help me carry them over, will you?”
Getting drinks isn’t a two-person job, and I’d be happy to get the next round, but from the way Kara is looking at me, I can tell she wants to have a say without Tori and Danni listening in.
“Look, I’m sorry,” Kara starts as we walk towards the bar. “I probably shouldn’t have said all that. It’s just…I’m frustrated. I know you’d hoped to be married with children and a house by now, but you’re only twenty-five.”
Nearly twenty-six, and my birthday looms like a date with a guillotine. I’ve been working towards my dream life since I became an adult. Unfortunately, I didn’t factor in how long it might take me to find a man to settle down with.
A long time ago, I accepted the fact that my desires in life aren’t exactly in line with those of a ‘modern’ woman. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about being independent; I don’t expect a man to support me. During my studies, I roomed first with Kara and then with Tori, and then I moved out on my own. I save every cent I can from my job as a consultant for a large banking chain. I’m not looking for a knight in shining armour to rescue me, I just want a man to put down roots with. What is so wrong with that?
“Kara, they estimate that it becomes less and less likely for the average Australian to be able to buy their own home with every year that passes.”
“I never know who ‘they’ are.”
“They are the experts.” Some of those experts happen to work at the bank with me. “Interest rates are on the rise and now that they’re abolishing the first home buyers grant, it’s going to be ten times more difficult to buy real estate. I’ve been saving for this since I was fifteen. All the money I have means nothing. I’ve put in three applications for a loan and every single one has been rejected by the banks. They won’t lend to me because I’m single.”
Which is why I’ve been working so hard to remedy that.
Kara sighs, and I know what she’s thinking. For many people, the idea of owning a house is a dream, but for me it’s an obsession.
“I know you think me wanting my own place is stupid.”
“I don’t. Not really. It’s just the whole checklist for the perfect man thing that I have a problem with. You can’t rush meeting the right guy.”
“I’m not trying to rush it, but I need a guy to get the house, and marriage and kids have been on the cards for me from the beginning.”
Mum didn’t bat an eyelash when Dad upped and left us to go to India so he could ‘find himself’. Until then, I’d always thought my mother was the flightier one of my parents; she’d moved us round constantly over the years because she had an artist’s soul and she needed change and variety to feed her creativity. And yet, when Dad went off to pursue self-actualisation, Mum was the one who stuck around. The day Dad left, she made it clear to me she didn’t need a man in her life.
Maybe I should feel the same way, but I don’t.
I want a home where I can hang my pictures up without having to get permission from the landlord. I want rooms where I can choose the colour of the paint and how to decorate. I want my own vegetable patch. I want to pay off my mortgage, not somebody else’s. And I don’t want to have to worry about the end of my lease and where I would move to next should the landlord decide they want a new tenant. According to the banks, I need a partner to make me a more ‘appealing’ candidate.
And I won’t put my future children at risk of instability and unpredictability by choosing the wrong partner. Children aren’t first on my list just yet, but I won’t leave life to chance. I’m looking for a man with similar values and ideas. It’s sensible. Logical. Practical.
“I’m merely being proactive in looking for one that fits the criteria I want in a mate,” I tell Kara. “The list embodies everything that isn’t negotiable. In a world where you can never take anything for granted and divorces happen more than they don’t, I want to find someone who’s right for me.”
“I understand that. But ever since your third home loan application was knocked back, dating has become more of an obsession for you than it already was.”
“Because I’m not getting any younger.”
“Let me ask you this. When is the last time you genuinely felt happy?”
It’s a good thing we’ve finally reached the bar, because Kara’s question has my head spinning. It really can’t be all that long ago I felt truly happy. But as I speed through the past few weeks, then months, in my mind, I realise I don’t have an answer for her. Sure, there’s been moments when I’ve had fun, times when I’ve laughed. But the last time I felt happy, content, or experienced more than fleeting joy or amusement? I honestly can’t remember.
Kara looks far too excited by my lack of response. “See?”
“So?” I huff. “If I’m not happy, it’s because I’m still looking for Mr Right.”
“I don’t think so.”
I’m about to point out that it’s quite possible my general lack of happiness is due to my dating failures when one of the bartenders finishes serving the person next to me and asks us for our order.
“So cute,” Kara whispers as soon as the guy turns around to get my cider out of the fridge.
My gaze slides over the bartender’s spiky, dark blond hair, wide shoulders, muscular back and very nice arse. Definitely not bad. When he turns around again, Kara gives him a come-hither look. He rewards her with a smile, revealing a dimple. Cute. Very, very cute.
“I’ve always thought bartenders should wear nametags,” Kara says coyly when he puts all our drinks down on the tray in front of us. “Especially the cute ones.”
Considering Kara is often compared to a red-headed Scarlett Johansson, it’s hardly a surprise the cute bartender returns her admiring look and winks. “You’re fishing for my name?”
“Do you have one?”
He leans on the bar. “Of course. Do you?”
“Nice to meet you, Kara.”
Kara puts her hand on my back and nudges me forwards while taking a step back. “Sam, this is Claire.”
I want to die on the spot. My face is on fire as Sam runs appraising eyes over me. He must think I look all right because he gives me a small nod of approval.
“How ya doing, Claire?”
“Um, fine. Thanks for asking.”
He laughs throatily.
“Claire was just telling me she thinks you’re really cute,” Kara says.
It’s official. Kara has a death wish. I turn to shoot Kara my best I’m-going-to-kill-you-for-this-later-look before turning back to Sam, ready to deny it. However, Sam looks pleased and I return his grin instead.
“Actually, Kara told me that Brody’s has the hottest bartenders. I told her she wasn’t lying.”
Sam’s grin grows even wider. “You think so, huh?”
Did I really just say that? I can’t remember the last time I flirted with a really cute guy like Sam. Usually, if a man doesn’t fit my description of a potential partner, I don’t bother trying to capture his interest. And while the guys I’ve dated in the past haven’t exactly been unattractive, I’ve been more focused on what they could bring to a marriage rather than enjoying my interactions with them.
Sam pushes away from the bar and grabs a pen and a piece of paper, laying it out on the bar. Right there in front of me, he writes down his number before folding the paper carefully and slipping it into my hand.
“Should you decide you want a bartender for…anything at all.”
I give him the sauciest smile I can. “Thanks, Sam.”
“Call me anytime,” he tells me as I take the tray laden with drinks.
His comment captures the attention of those around us. Now might be a good time for the floor to open up and swallow me whole.
“Why did you do that?” I ask Kara between gritted teeth as we start walking away from the bar.
Kara shrugs and looks straight ahead, an enormous grin on her face. “Just trying to help you have some fun.”
“That was so embarrassing!”
“It was not! You loved it. Don’t even try to deny you didn’t enjoy getting your flirt on with Sam the bartender.”
“I wasn’t ‘getting my flirt on’.”
“Oh, you so were. And it paid off. He gave you his number. You’ve still got it, Claire Bear.”
I shake my head at her, but a smile is tugging at my lips.
“Go on,” Kara urges, nudging me gently. “Admit it. It was fun to flirt with him, even though he would never pass your first date interview.”
“Okay, fine. It was a little bit fun.”
“I knew it. Now imagine how much fun you’d have if you actually called him up and went on a date with him.”
“But as we just discussed, he doesn’t fit any of the criteria on my list.”
We reach our table and I put the tray down in time to see frustration flicker over Kara’s features.
“What just happened?” Tori asks, looking between the two of us.
“Sam the hot bartender just gave Claire his number and instructed her to call.”
“Way to go, Claire!” Tori says.
“But he doesn’t fit any of the criteria on her list,” Kara continues.
“Oh,” Tori says softly.
I sit back down. “You guys know why this is so important to me.”
“Claire, when I told you that I wanted to take you out and get you drunk tonight, it was a lie.”
Kara makes a sweeping gesture over Tori and Danni. “This is an intervention.”
“An intervention?” I repeat, anger replacing my confusion. “I know you guys don’t approve of the guys I date, or why I date them, for that matter, but I need my friends tonight.”
“And you have them,” Tori says.
“But sometimes it’s the job of your friends to tell you a few home truths,” Kara adds.
“Just hear us out, Claire,” Danni says. “If you don’t like what we have to say, we’ll never bring it up again.”
I grind my teeth. This isn’t how I saw the evening playing out. I want to walk out of here right now, but if I do, I’ll be even more miserable and pissed off than when I walked in. I don’t want the evening to end on a complete downer. Clearly, my friends came here a purpose and won’t be deterred from ‘intervening.’ If we can get this over with, maybe I can convince them they are being ridiculous, and we can put the whole thing behind us and get on with having a fun night.
“Fine. I’ll listen to what you have to say, but then we drop this subject and you guys support me from here on out. Fair?”
“Okay,” Kara agrees. “Tori will go first. Ready, Tori?”
Tori nods and take a deep breath as if she’s preparing to speak in front of the United Nations. “Claire, we love you. And as your friends, we want to see you happy. It’s come to our attention lately that you seem to be going through the motions of life rather than actually living it. We can’t remember the last time you smiled or even laughed. You just don’t seem to be taking any joy from life at all.”
I resist the urge to disagree. It’s their opinion, and I can’t dismiss it outright, even though it hurts to hear.
“I’ll admit I’m a little preoccupied at the moment. Kara pointed out that it’s been a while since I had fun, and she’s right. I think that once I find the right guy, I’ll probably start to relax. I do appreciate your concern, though.”
Danni jumps in. “Here’s the thing, Claire. I think it’s possible you’re actually scaring off all the guys who could be suitable at this point.”
“If they’re suitable, they won’t be scared off,” I say.
“You’d be surprised,” Danni returns. “Even the guys who don’t shy away from commitment and want something serious are turned off by someone who doesn’t know how to let go and have fun.”
I jerk back as if slapped. “I do know how to have fun and let go.”
“We don’t get to see it anywhere near enough,” Danni says. “Whenever we catch up with you, you’re always…I don’t know, you come across as miserable and feeling sorry for yourself.”
“I do not!”
I’m done listening to this. As much as I want my friends to know I value their opinion, I can’t sit here while they accuse me of indulging in self-pity. I don’t feel sorry for myself. Okay, I’m frustrated and exhausted by how much effort I put into working towards my goals, and I’m upset that all of my relationships end quickly and without any progress, but I’m not caught up in self-pity, am I?
“Guys don’t want to date someone who sucks all the joy out of them,” Danni continues.
“Claire, you don’t smile anymore. We’re really, really worried,” Kara says.
The only thing stopping me from walking out of Brody’s is the earnest expression on Kara’s face. I can hear the concern in her voice. I can see the concern on all my friends’ faces. It’s a shock. Yes, I’ll admit I’m not as happy as I could be and probably haven’t been for quite some time, but I don’t need anyone to worry about me.
“I’m sorry for worrying you, but I’m fine. Truly.”
“We were wondering,” Kara starts tentatively. “If you would just consider the idea of a timeout from the list.” She makes a T with her hands, in the universal gesture for a timeout.
“I can’t. There’s no time.”
“We’re not talking about anything long-term. Just six months or so. Long enough for you to have some fun and relax again.”
“We can all go out together a bit more,” Tori says. “We only seem to go out when you break up with a guy.”
“And you can date a cute bartender or two during the timeout,” Kara says, grinning. “You’ll have time to have fun with them.”
“And when you’re done having fun,” Tori says, “you go back for looking for Mr Right. No harm. No foul.”
“You might even find that dating is easier and more rewarding after you’ve loosened up a little,” Danni says.
Kara leans in. “We’ll drop it for now, but will you please consider what we’ve said?”
“I’ll consider it.”
After everything they’ve said, I don’t have the heart to tell my friends I can’t afford to take a timeout. I’m behind my schedule for buying my own place, and six months is far too long to hit pause on my search for Mr Right. However, my friends and their genuine concern has given me something to think about. While they’ve joked about it before, I had no idea they felt so strongly about my list. And the fact I can’t remember the last time I had fun is an indicator that perhaps there are some things I need to do differently.
For example, I could go out with the girls a bit more. I do tend to socialize more with them between break-ups because I like to leave date nights free for the man I’m dating. Not something I’m particularly proud of right now. Kara is right about me not having much fun lately. Perhaps it’s even worth considering going on a date with a cute bartender like Sam. Flirting with him is more fun than I’ve had in a long time. One date won’t hurt anybody, and it might satisfy my friends if I go out with someone who doesn’t fit the criteria on my list. I don’t need to take a timeout to go on one or two dates.
“Uh-oh,” Tori whispers, looking over at the door.
My stomach clenches as I contemplate what – or rather who – might have elicited such a response from my friend. Reluctantly, I follow Tori’s gaze over to the door in time to see Dylan James wiping his black boots on the mat at the door before strutting over to the bar as if he owns the place. Just like always, my heartrate doubles and my palms turn clammy at the sight of him. It doesn’t matter how much he annoys me, irritates me, and drives me crazy; I’ve had this reaction to him ever since my brother brought Dylan home and introduced us.
I watch Dylan high-five everyone behind the bar before he walks over to the electronic jukebox in the corner, waving to and greeting many of the patrons as he passes them. The rock song that was playing stops abruptly and a popular dance track blares out from the speakers around us. A cheer goes up from behind the bar and from some of the patrons who greeted Dylan a moment ago. Dylan grins before walking back to the bar and vaulting over it like the show-off he is.
“Should we go?” Tori asks.
“Why?” Kara asks. “It’s just Dylan. And we were here first.”
There is no ‘just’ about it. Dylan James is the last person I wanted to see tonight, or any time, really. But I don’t want to leave. Not now that my friends have finished their intervention. I haven’t touched my drink yet, and I’d planned on having more than one with the girls tonight. Hopefully, my friends will take pity on me and order my drinks for me so I can stay at the table, leaving Dylan none-the-wiser about my presence in the bar tonight.
After receiving a few slaps on the back from his fellow colleagues, Dylan walks out of sight and into some room behind the bar. The next time he appears, he’s ditched his black leather jacket. The shiny grey shirt he’s wearing is unbuttoned at the top and he rolls the sleeves up his forearms before starting to serve drinks. His messy, dark hair is swept over his forehead like always. Sam, the sexy barman, says something that causes Dylan to look up and laugh, and then Sam starts actively searching the crowd for someone. Me! Not wanting to appear rude, I reluctantly wave back when he grins at me. I can pinpoint the exact moment Dylan realises I’m the one Sam is waving to because he stops smiling and starts frowning. Great. The chances of getting out of Brody’s without having to speak to Dylan are now officially non-existent.