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TODAY

Saturday, February 23

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Airbags

The night was, as many are, a wash. Playing the scenes back in high speed as I drove home, the conversation twittered and spun around the usual topics - too much sun, too little sun, too many people on the road and where are you going for the holidays. A guy who lacked a suitable group to join cradled a phone in his hand, texting and laughing to himself.

A couple I'd met a few times were leaving for San Francisco. The husband was recently hired by an Internet company and was re-introduced to me at the bar. If I remembered his name then, I've forgotten it now. I assume he has no memory of mine.

"He's going to work for Yahoo," said Simon, my good friend and the reason I was at the bar, aside from saying farewell to two people I didn't know.

"That sounds good," I said. The scotch and soda tasted bitter and expensive.

"Yeah," said the guy. "At least they're starting me as a manager. Manager." He said it twice.

"Do you like San Francisco?" I asked, leaning back a little, steadying myself against the dark wood of the bar.

"Oh, it's fine. Sheila and I love it up there, she's from the Bay area. You should come up and visit sometime, we'll hang out." I laughed a little, looking up to see if the bartender was moving my way.

"Sure, I'll do that." I said. I could picture him, his wife and I all at a night fair together, winning large stuffed prizes, high-fiving each other after ringing a hammered bell. I wonder if I could get through the entire trip without having to apologize and ask what their names were.

Someone stepped in between me and the bar, shoving me back. The black dress faced away from me, the woman inside waved to the bartender and I glanced at my Simon and the guy I didn't know. They both looked as surprised as I felt.

I was suddenly angry. The bar wasn't crowded enough to warrant pushing past someone like this. My friends left me standing there, parting with a snarky laughing remark, something about good luck waiting for a drink. She must have heard them laughing because she leaned around after them and cackled like a harpy. I stepped back as she showed off the whitest teeth with her laugh.

Dry false laughter — a lone track runner mocking a rival team's who were bigger and faster, little kids attempting to throw water all over witnesses to an embarrassing situation. I started to consider saying something snarky, like, "If you're that thirsty, you should've brought a bottle with you." I moved around to her left. I wanted to see her face more clearly. The bartenders dipped in and out of my peripheral vision but I didn't try to flag one. I stared at her for a long moment.

Her eyes were slightly tilted, possibly by makeup or from the genes of a Norwegian parent. The skin of her face was a pale custard and it was cake-smooth like the surface of a dam. Only near her neck were there any signs of undoctored age. The California wattle, as I have come to recognize it. Exposure to the ever-present Southwestern sun makes men and women in their forties and fifties display a funny wattle of skin that hangs below the jawline. In prehistoric creatures, this would make up a facial structure designed to expand when eating, like a lizard who devours turtle eggs without piercing the shells.

From her jaw, a tan lightly faded and her neck was tucked into the top of an attractive dress that probably came off a lot easier than it went on. The black solid material was cut short at the shoulders, leaving a long slender arm waving a bit of red streamer. Her straight blonde hair bounced off her neck as she waved. She looked to the side slightly, caught a glimpse of her face in the barroom mirror and tucked the hair behind her ear more securely.

Earlier, a party guy had waved his own bit of streamer in order to get a drink on the company's tab. A smart way to run a holiday event, I guess. No big outlay of plastic and glass, no cattle call - just a constant faucet that gets turned off as efficiently as possible. One thing that she didn't know - which I did, from an earlier scene with an older guy in a suit, waving a similar bit of red plastic - is that she was about to be disappointed. The bar had turned away the man before and I guessed that they'd turn her away too. I studied her further, knowing she'd be disappointed momentarily.

"Sorry, party's over." She huffed and shook her little pink string but the bartender turned away. For a second, I felt a half-drunk version of pity for her. She was used to getting things easily in her low-cut dress. She turned to the side, finally glanced at me and then stomped off down toward the far end of the bar.

Before the end of the night I saw her a few more times. She popped up among a crowd of not-handsome-enough balding men at the end of the room. They studied her hawkishly but laughed at her as soon as she walked out to the restrooms. Once, I looked over and behind me. Jason Lee, the guy from that tv show, was seated at a small table near the door. She slumped in a chair directly across from him, barely awake and nodding as though there was a marionette string jerking on her head.

I took a new drink outside to sit in the warm December weather. Stretched out my legs next to Simon, who sat at a table tilting his beer bottle on the table. He and I had become friends after another friend had introduced us at a concert in the summertime. He said "That!" and pointed around the side of a glass in his hand. I followed a line from his finger to a guy playing with a cellphone.

"That's the razor phone that I want. I can't wait to get it. I'm up for my new-every-two new phone thing and I fucking want that phone so bad."

"It seems like a great phone," I said.

"Yeah, it sure does. I fucking love that phone. Christ, how'd I get so drunk? Did you do this to me, Sean?"

I laughed and said no. The evening drifted along as valets came and delivered keys to drunk patrons. Jason Lee strolled out, taking his keys from the valet, a few friends in tow. Finally, the plague of leaving struck our group and we fell apart in couples and single men. I stood up, judged myself steady enough and put my hand on Simon's shoulder.

"Be right back, I'll hit the restroom and then walk out with you."

I walked into the bar and headed to the rear. There was a small courtyard with several private tables near the restroom. Over near the women's room was a photo booth. I stepped into the men's room, pissed loudly into a toilet and then back out into the courtyard. Everything was silent, everyone had left.

I walked to the photo booth. I sat down inside, staring at the too-short reflection of my tired face in the glass. Stool's always too low, I said to myself. As I stood up to spin it higher, I saw the photos on the floor of the booth.

The woman with the black dress. Here she was, in crisp black and white. The strip had been stepped on several times. I wiped it on my pant leg and saw four photos.

1. The woman wearing a cocky, sneering smile. Eyes half closed, looking directly at the camera. Her eyes are reptilian slits and there is a tiny dimple on either side of her perfect mouth.

2. More jerkiness. Eyes wider now. Head slightly back, the California waddle is more visible. She gestures to the camera with a crooked finger.

3. The smile is gone. Someone off-camera is shouting into the booth? She looks surprised and is turning to face the door of the booth.

4. Final shot. A hand has entered the frame and is grabbing her left breast. She looks surprised but her response appears rehearsed. She faces forward and is holding a laugh in her mouth with her right hand. Upon closer examination, the back of the hand has a lot of dark hair and there is a thick watch on the wrist.

The door to the back of the bar swung open and Simon poked his head into the courtyard.

"Bitch, you fall in? Come on, we're leavin' right now."

I dropped the photos to the floor of the booth and walked out. Passing by the bar, I nodded at the bartender.

"Have a good night."

He nodded back and told me to drive safe, as he hit the till and shoved in a wad of tips. As I reached the front door, Simon came at me with his friend's phone. Isn't this the shit, he asked. A car wheeled out of the parking area. I looked at Simon's hand, glowing with an electronic screen.

We both turned our heads as the black BMW pulled up at the valet station. The woman from the photo booth sat asleep in the passenger's seat, next to a man in a suit. He had a phone to his ear as car after car passed by, making an exit impossible. Simon said that someone was going to get lucky tonight. I looked at him and then at the black car as it slid past. Another vehicle, a dirty white truck, popped over the hill, engine gunning. Its front bumper glanced against the black car with a loud crack.

The two vehicles screeched to a short halt. A shout came from inside the BMW. The truck slowly pulled off to the side of the street; the new car followed. Simon turned to me and told me to get home before the cops showed up and started looking for drinking drivers. Buckle up, he said, with a beery smile. He snapped his friend's phone closed and absently slipped it in his own pocket, sticking his arm up a moment later to wave and shout at an out-of-place taxicab.

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About the Author(s)

Sean U'Ren is a video editor who recently moved from Chicago to Los Angeles. In this occasional column, he shares his experiences transitioning from one city to another. He can be reached at stranded@gmail.com

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