Shoddy First Impressions

By MagicWords

(-Oneshot-)

Happenstance Romance was just another unendurable band among the hundreds that had performed live on stage at Ephemeral Existence, an underage night club designed for the hoodlums of my generation. On Friday nights, musically-deficient garage bands from all over London would reserve the stage in order to make their historic debut, sign contracts with producers, or simply rally up a sizable following of female groupies.

None of these three expectations ever happened to bands that performed at Ephemeral Existence, though, and I was willing to bet that Happenstance Romance would not be an exception. Nevertheless, I inclined my ear toward the punk-rock wannabes and gave them my full attention. I had this thing about giving something a full go before I passed judgment on it, but after listening through two near-deafening screamo catastrophes, I easily damned Happenstance Romance to a fiery venue on the outskirts of Hell. From this location, they would spend eternity performing failing gigs, while at the same time, clinging to the fraying hopes of one day producing something musically enlightening.

They could dream, like all struggling bands did, of becoming idolized musicians, but from what I gathered, these blokes were just as shite as every other band I'd listened to since I started coming to this club.

"Simply intolerable," I hollered to my best mate, Lizzie, above the frontman's incessant screeching. Bass ricocheted off the walls like bleedin' bullets, which in turn, rained down on the defenseless club-goers like shellfire in a warzone. Unbeknownst to Happenstance Shitefest—I mean Romance—much of their audience had dwindled to a considerably smaller mass than what they'd started with. Those who hung back to endure the thirty-minute gig either enjoyed the sound of tearing esophagi, or were lifeless critics like me.

Lizzie, what a chum, actually enjoyed shoddy music. Her preference in genres was usually based on how appealing the lead guitarist of a particular musical category looked in his leather pants. Ricky Batey—better known as Master-Batey to those with crude senses of humor, like me—wore the pants exceptionally well, or at least that's what I gathered from the yearning expression on Lizzie's face.

"Intolerable?" she yelled back, aghast. She swiped a spike of blonde hair out of her eyes and threw me a look of horror. "Your taste in music has plummeted extensively since we first met, Jacqueline. You say the same thing about every band that plays here!"

"Because every band that plays here doesn't amount to shite," I explained, though I was fairly certain Lizzie had not heard me. Besides, she had pinned her gaze back on to Master-Batey. My disapproving views of "not-quite-the-next-big-thing" bands, even the ones properly attired in tight leather get-up, meant little to Lizzie. Once again, I was left to deliberate my purposeless musings on my own.

"If you think every band that plays here is shite," Lizzie yelled after a moment, all without taking her gaze off of Happenstance Romance's lead guitarist, "then why do you come here every weekend?"

It was a question I, too, pondered upon occasion. As Master-Batey took center-stage and embarked upon a squealing guitar solo that almost made me lose consciousness, I considered Lizzie's inquiry. True, I did not come to Ephemeral Existence for the riveting musical talent or, in fact, the possibility of hooking up with a wide variety of leather-clad punk artists. However, it was the only place I went to in order to avoid my mum, who spent her nights off drinking herself to a coma and forgetting that people like me existed.

Lizzie did not need to know this unfortunate truth, so I passively shrugged. After years of knowing me, she knew that this was the clearest response she was bound to receive. Unlike most, she was completely aware of my hatred for showing emotion.

So we focused our attention back to Happenstance Romance and ordered two more chai tea lattes from a waitress who looked like a female Mick Jagger.

"Come on, let's dance," Lizzie insisted after we finished our tea. She tightened her hand around my wrist. Reflexively, I flinched away from her.

"You can't be serious," I rumbled, just as Happenstance Romance's frontman bellowed one last excruciating howl into his microphone. The band was gearing up to blast into their next set, but I was secretly hoping that they would blast off to a separate universe, one in which I would never have to hear the likes of their musical misinterpretations again.

Lizzie hopped off her stool and tugged on my arm. She nearly succeeded in pulling it from its socket. "Come on, Jackie! I want Ricky to see me out there. You never know, you may find one of the band-mates to be deliciously irresistible, too. Look at the vocalist! He has something of a dark smile."

"Liz, the bloke's wearing black lipstick. No thank you."

"Ah, come on. Live a little for once in your life! Or at least assist me in living mine. I'm too shy to dance alone."

"Bollocks," I refuted, wincing against her tight grip. For a skinny girl with blonde hair and perceptibly innocent blue eyes, she was surprisingly strong.

I sighed. "Fine, but just this once. I would simply die if someone thought I was dancing to this excruciatingly awful band of my own free will. Let it be known to all that I am merely assisting my friend in living her life by dancing to music that sounds more like a train-wreck than actual melody!" I bawled as Lizzie pulled me toward the stage. She rolled her eyes obnoxiously. I wanted to point out that we were one of the few duos actually walking on and not off the dance floor, but I held my tongue to spare Lizzie the shame of being seen with me.

Immediately, Lizzie began sashaying to a new Happenstance Romance "song." In all actuality, the upbeat tempo could have been mistaken for a lamprophonic blend of pathetic emo poetry and skidding bus tires. During this particular number, I believed I heard the words "doth," "mayhem," and "zoanthropy" used in one verse.

I cringed against the lyrics, but danced. Lizzie grinned as I half-heartedly rolled my shoulders and moved in pace with the beat. I hoped my minimal movements appeased her. I hated dancing. I much preferred the simplistic practice of sitting and critiquing substandard music from afar. Sometimes if I was lucky, anonymous club-goers would buy me chai tea lattes. It paid to sit still and look pathetic for long periods of time.

Still, I bit back a grimace as Lizzie turned from me and locked gazes with Master-Batey. Sweat gleamed on his face, streaking the pale-white make up that illuminated his complexion. Nevertheless, he tossed a lolling smile to Lizzie while shattering the notes he was supposed to be hitting. Her poor taste in men befuddled me.

"Don't look now, but someone's watching you," Lizzie yelled above the sound of the bass. This alarmed me, seeing as I had not expected Lizzie to drag her eyes away from the boys on stage and examine our surroundings. More concerned than curious, I spun around, the heels of my flat-soled boots slipping against the tiled floor. Seeing no one, I frowned at Lizzie.

"Who?"

With arched eyebrows that disappeared into her spikey bangs, Lizzie inclined her head over my shoulder. Lo and behold, I noticed a boy walking toward us, and his rapidly blinking eyes were firmly locked to mine.

I grimaced and looked at Lizzie. "Let's go," I ordered.

"No, let's see what he wants."

She held me in place with her vice-like grip. I declared her dead to me.

I'd been spending my weekend evenings at Ephemeral Existence for months now, basking in the droll delights of cheap tea and insanely horrid live music, and never once had I laid eyes on this boy. He walked with a slight limp, but not one that gave off the impression of recent injury. No, his crooked posture indicated his wavering indifference: should he continue toward me, or would it be in his best interest to turn around and return to the dark corner from whence he came?

If he knew any better, he would have chosen the latter. Unfortunately, he continued onto the dance floor. His eyes, hidden behind gold frames, appeared black in the dim light, but after he approached, I could see that they were brown. Boring, ordinary, muddy brown.

He even had brown freckles, ruffled brown hair, and wore a weather-beaten brown jacket that looked as if it had endured one too many rough winters. Once again, I frowned just as he stopped in front of Lizzie and me. His hands shook tremulously, so he stuffed them in the pockets of his not-brown jeans.

"H-Hi," he said to me. He didn't even look at Lizzie. Shallow and rude. I quickly labeled him a prick.

"Hi," Lizzie chimed, delighted by the way this random, sloppily dressed boy eyed me nervously. The boy swallowed.

"Brilliant music, eh?" he shouted, but even above the din, I heard his voice crack. I could easily see his chest rising and falling beneath the thin fabric of his T-shirt. It almost sounded as if he had practiced his short line a few times before actually reciting it to me. His enunciation was slow and staggered, his focus rooted on pronouncing each syllable without fault. A valiant attempt, I said to myself.

Somewhat annoyed, I looked to Lizzie for assistance.

Unfortunately, Lizzie paid little heed to my silent pleas for help. Instead, she flashed a grin and backpedaled toward the stage before I could yank her back to my side. I stood alone in a state of absolute desertion, forced to stare at a strange boy, who in return, was searching my face for a response to his observation. Clearing his throat, he said in an unexpected Irish accent, "What do you think of the band?"

This boy had no idea who he was getting involved with. Smugly, I crossed my arms and shouted back, "I actually find them quite shite. Repulsively shite. In fact, I believe no band in this club has ever sounded shitier."

The boy's expression immediately transformed from thin-lipped nervousness to absolute shock. I watched this colossal countenance change with sadistic interest. His cheeks twitched and his stance shifted. His nervousness was undeniable. My sharp retort had successfully disrupted whatever smooth line he'd planned to sweep me off my feet with next.

"Oh," he muttered. "You're probably right." Once more, he shuffled uncomfortably just as I produced a triumphant smile. My boorishness was bound to get rid of him.

And then he peeked up at me and said, "Do you want to dance with me?"

His words spilled from his lips so fast, I thought I misheard him. Even he looked stunned by his brashness, almost as if he'd surprised himself.

"What?" I bellowed. Outraged, I studied his horrified expression and swept my coarse, black hair over one shoulder. Despite the waning crowd on the dance floor, the room felt stuffy with sweat and reverberating acoustics. Who did this prick think he was, asking me to dance to a song that sounded like the wails of a dying animal?

"Do you want to dance with me?" he repeated, more slowly and less boldly. This daft asshole thought I had not heard him. I restrained a scoffing laugh. Of course I had heard him. Did he think I was stupid?

However, and much to my displeasure, I actually considered agreeing to his request. I had to give this stranger a margin of credit. He had emerged from some dark corner of the club just to talk to me, and I could tell by his trembling shoulders that it had taken a load of nerve, and possibly a bit of alcohol, for him to do so.

"Fine," I eventually sighed. This boy appeared shocked by my compliance. Truthfully, I had shocked myself, but I knew that if I refused this boy, then Lizzie would never let me hear the end of it. She loved playing match-maker, after all.

One of the main reasons why she spent her weekends at this pathetic club was so that she could hook me up with a boy my type. I'd endured a particularly nasty break-up less than two months ago, and Lizzie believed it was time I found a new bloke to shag.

Yet, and much to Lizzie's disbelief, I actually enjoyed spending time at Ephemeral Existence. My reason for coming never included conversing with strange gits that looked as if they wanted to wet their pants before asking me to dance, but life is a nonrefundable gift that surprises you, as Happenstance Romance was busy conveying while jumping around on stage.

Quietly, the boy with the brown everything (except jeans) stepped toward me, and we both began to move quite awkwardly to the beat. I decided that if I had to endure this torture, then I may as well make the best of it. Sultrily, I laced my arms around the prick's neck and smoothed my body against his chest. Based on the look in his wide-eyes, he had not anticipated such close contact so soon.

"Am I making you uncomfortable?" I asked, enabling a rare, yet completely believable, flirtatious tone of voice. My fingers tapped his shoulder blades as we danced. I hoped it wouldn't take long for this boy to find out I was teasing him. He was obviously inexperienced when it came to women. His feeble nature was just as pathetic as a drowning fish. I watched him swallow roughly. His damned Adam's apple even throbbed in the process.

"No," he replied shakily.

Batting my eyelashes, I mouthed, "Good," just as Happenstance Romance burst into a fit of unremitting screamo lyrics. Following the speedy rhythm, I danced faster and pushed against him harder. Without warning, I sucked in his scent. He smelled as if he'd overdosed on his grandfather's musty cologne. I forced back a fit of coughs, but my cheek was nuzzled against his, so he did not get the chance to see the repugnant look on my face.

"So what's your name?" he all but shouted into my ear. I cringed, but kept up the sultry façade.

"Jackie," I breathed, turning my face so that I could trace my lips against the rim of his ear as I said my name. His body stiffened, then relaxed. I'd subdued him by digging my fingers into his scalp. His hair was thick, but pleasantly soft. Roughly, I pulled on the nape of his neck until his head tilted back. My cruelty knew no bounds.

"Don't you want to know mine?" he asked, just as Master-Batey fired off another ear-splitting guitar solo. Really, this moment could not have been any more "perfect."

"I don't need to know," I said. "It's not important." And then I bit down on his earlobe, hard.

Just as expected, he gasped out loud and pulled away from me, clutching his ear with one hand. He looked horrified. In response, I planted my hands on my hips and rolled my eyes. "Now bug off, prick."

Instant hurt filled the boy's eyes. Behind his smudgy frames, I noticed him blink back tears of embarrassment. This surprisingly jarred me. Typically, I prided myself with being a cold-hearted bitch, but a part of me knew that I had pushed this boy too far. He was certainly not your average bloke who only asked to dance with girls because he thought it would lead to a good, hard shag.

No, this boy was different. I could see genuine mortification in his face, mortification that I had caused because I was a bitter, jaded arse who was afraid of letting anyone inside the cold chasm that had once held my beating heart.

Though I kept my hands on my sides, I abandoned my glower. I almost parted my lips to apologize, but the boy was already gone, following the throng of deafened club-goers out the back door.

Lizzie materialized by my side in a moment. At the same time, Happenstance Romance ended their final number and waited for applause that never came.

"What happened?" she barged.

Rolling my eyes, I said, "I got rid of him. He was nothing but an insufferable, desperate, four-eyed git." I swallowed uncertainly. Then I buried my guilt and sighed, "How about next time we stick to the safe confines of our table in the back? We can drink in our full share of leather-clad, rock-star wannabes from that safe vantage point, all right, Liz?"

My friend frowned at me, but she knew better than to argue. "All right," she muttered in acceptance.


The following week, I returned to Ephemeral Existence. Much to my dismay, Lizzie had a date with Master-Batey, and therefore left me to suffer the torture of my own company for a whole evening.

Her date evoked two problems: one, I could not count on a shitey band to keep me entertained on a night like tonight. Two, I secretly relied on Lizzie to distract me from my personal problems, like my drunk mum and back-stabbing ex-boyfriend. She knew how to keep my mind off things without really knowing that she was doing it.

However, I had to place full faith in chai tea lattes and "not-quite-the-next-big-thing" bands in order to keep myself grounded for the night.

I ordered my latte and settled in at a table in the back of the club and across from the stage. This new group, whom I'd never heard before, called Devil's Sidekick, was doing a sound check just as a dozen chums my age trickled into the club. They all ignored me, but I was used to such snubs. My back table remained my back table, and no bugger in their right mind would possibly try to deprive me of such a luxury.

Except…

"Hi."

His voice made me jump. Thankfully I had not received my drink yet, or else it would have landed in my lap. I whirled around in my stool, nearly catching my pleated black skirt in the buckles of my boots. Much to my astonishment, I stared into the boring, ordinary, muddy brown eyes of the boy I'd humiliated last week on the dance floor.

He had upgraded the color variety of his wardrobe: this week, his jacket was emerald green and inlaid with plaid flannel. His jeans looked slightly distressed, and his hair was just as disheveled as the last time I'd seen it. A flash from the stage-lights bounced off the back wall during a test demo and created a glare across his glasses. Still, he stared at me, fists nervously clenched at his sides, posture imposingly rigid.

"Hello," I said slowly, hoping to sound undisturbed by his sudden appearance. The waitress brought me my latte and I took a casual sip. "Is there something I can help you with? If there is, you'd better make it quick. You see, Devil's Sidekick is about to play a set that will more than likely give me an unpleasant dose of strangely necessary whiplash, so unless you have something worthwhile to bother me with, I suggest you take a seat somewhere other than here."

My iciness came so easily that it was truly distressing. Nevertheless, the boy remained firm. Slightly nonplussed, but firm.

"Is this how you treat every bloke who tries to talk to you?" he asked, a slight tremor caught in his voice. The light from the stage receded off his glasses, which allowed me to see his eyes. They swam with true hurt.

"Blokes never try to talk to me," I corrected, just as the lights dimmed and Devil's Sidekick thundered onto the stage. The lead guitarist looked like shite in his leather pants. "So to be frank, your question is empty of meaning, as well as void of the honest answer which you so desperately seek."

The boy with the not-brown jacket breathed in and out. He looked extraordinarily uncomfortable, but also as if he'd forced himself to confront me. Then, and right before Devil's Sidekick's frontman screamed pointlessly into the mic (a means of introduction, I supposed), the boy I'd scorned yelled, "Do you remember all those free teas you received weeks ago?"

Truthfully, this inquiry caught me off guard. Narrowing my eyes, I replied, "Yes." A pitiful retort from someone as intelligent as me.

"Well, they were all from me. I watched you order the same chai tea latte enough times to know that it was your favorite drink. I also knew that you did not like to dance because you never, ever left your table to do so. So I never asked you to dance, not until I saw you approach the stage with your friend."

I gaped at this strange boy who had just shared his startling stalker confession. He had rendered me speechless, something that rarely ever happened. In fact, it was a damn near unheard of phenomenon. "So you have spent week after week spying on me, hoping to win me over with free chai tea lattes?" I clarified after recovering.

The boy's cheeks blushed with humiliation. My question must have helped him discover the hair-raising nature of his behavior. And yet, he clenched his fists to his sides, inhaled a breath of air, and, trembling, said, "None of that matters. You should just know that people shouldn't treat people the way you treated me. All I wanted was a dance. One dance. And you made a game out of it. Out of me."

To this, my heart seized a bit. I, a young woman made of steel exterior, felt a crack spread through the invisible shield I'd designed to block out all emotion. After all, too much emotion, let alone involvement in other people's lives, only led to your own heartbreak. I'd been hurt by enough people to know this to be true. Still, I listened as the boy proceeded.

"I'm not asking for an apology. I just wanted you to know what I think. Yeah, I took a noticing to you after you started coming to this club. How could I not? You're…beautiful." He began to stammer over his words, all hope of proper enunciation lost. "And obviously I'm bloody terrible at talking to gorgeous girls, but you should know this: perhaps the reason you're sitting all alone at the back of this pathetic club is because people are afraid of you."

His allegation made me bristle. "You don't know the first thing about me," I snarled, half-desperate to throw my hot tea at his chest. However, I craved the comfort that the warm cup provided.

"Perhaps I would if you'd have given me a proper chance." Then, thoughtfully, he added, "I spoke to your friend about you once. I'll have you know that it was her idea to get you on the dance floor, not mine."

Lizzie, that traitor. She would pay for her treachery by a means I had not yet decided upon.

Glaring, I snapped, "So what of it? You asked me to dance with you and I danced. You had no idea who I really was, and I disappointed you. End of tragic story. Besides, you're not even my type."

"You don't know that," he refuted, beginning to walk away. "Perhaps you shouldn't be so quick to judge, Jackie. Doing so may prevent you from finding what it is you're here at this club looking for, which I'm sure is more than amateur bands that don't amount to shite." Then he stopped and turned around. Before finally leaving me in solitude, he added, "My name is Jarrod, by the way. You may not care to know it, but that doesn't matter to me. I need you to know that I actually have a name."

And then I watched him stalk off to his own corner of the club. He more than likely did not realize the crumbled mess he'd left me in. Guilt washed over me like torrential downpour. Though I did not want to admit it, his last remark left me shattered. It seemed hard for me to believe that someone who spent every one of her weekends listening to and criticizing shoddy bands could be accused of judging someone before she knew them.

But that had been exactly what I'd done to Jarrod, and now I felt as if I had unexpectedly lost exactly what I'd come to Ephemeral Existence to find.