Abiding by the Rules, by Matt Hlinak
The man sat at the bar, sipping scotch and trying to screw up the courage to cheat on his wife. He wasn’t sure he really wanted to, but he felt it was either this or get a divorce, which he didn’t want to do because, despite his wife’s insecurity and penchant for hurling unfounded accusations, he still loved her. And besides that, he was Catholic. He loosened his tie as the girl, just a few years older than his college-age sons, lurched forward on spike heels that accentuated her already long legs, giving them the appearance of stilts. She was attractive enough, with large brown eyes, an enthusiastic smile and blond hair cropped fashionably short, but her nose hooked ever so slightly like a beak. This would be easy to ignore were it not for those flamingo legs. The man greeted her with a lingering handshake and pulled a barstool out for her. She plopped down and ordered a glass of pinot noir.
“Have you been waiting long?” she asked over the din of the crowded tavern, a hip downtown dive containing an equal number of stockbrokers and skateboarders. Indie rock blared from the speakers on either end of the long mahogany bar.
“Not really,” he replied with a glance down the front of her shirt. It wasn’t really his kind of place, but he hoped the setting would convince the girl he was something other than a desperate middle-aged man trying to teach his paranoid wife a lesson. The man was a lawyer and the girl a law student working for his firm for the summer. They had agreed to meet for a drink after work at the bar next door to their office, but she had decided to swing by her sublet first, so he’d perched at the bar for almost an hour, drinking scotch while paying absentminded attention to a muted snowboarding competition on the flat-screen TV behind the bar. She’d changed out of the off-the-rack pantsuit she wore to work and into a tight black skirt and a cut-off tank-top that revealed the contours of her young breasts.
“Are you working with McMannis on that dead baby case?” he asked.
“What do you think?”
“I think it’s going to settle.”
“That’s good. You don’t want to take a dead baby in front of a jury.”
“Did you get through everything you wanted to finish today?”
“I still have a couple of deposition summaries to do, but they won’t take long. That motion I’ve been working on for McMannis took like twelve hours.”
“I bet. How many times did he make you redo it?”
“Four.” She looked down at her wineglass.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “The old bastard’s like that with everybody. When I was a clerk he kept me until nine o’clock on a Friday night because of”—he paused to affect McMannis’s patrician tone—“excessive comma usage throughout the latter half of the brief.”
She giggled at his impression and slid an inch or two nearer. “Does it get better?”
“When you pass the bar, he’ll let up a bit. Not a lot, but a bit.”
Talk about work made him nervous. He now found himself regretting his choice of location, as he’d neglected the possibility of someone from the office stopping in and catching the two of them fraternizing in violation of firm rules. The bartender came by, and they ordered another round. While they waited for their drinks, the two traded stories about the rural college town where they’d both attended law school, albeit two decades apart. The man was careful not to mention his wife, whom he’d married the summer before his last year of law school. When the bartender returned with their drinks, the girl cocked her head back and dumped the remaining contents of her first glass down her throat.
“So what do you do for fun?” she asked.
He paused for a moment before responding, “It’s been so long, I don’t remember.”
“Don’t you want to ask me what I do for fun?”
“Sure. What do you do for fun?”
“I collect thimbles.”
They sat there quietly for a moment before they both started laughing.
“You don’t collect thimbles,” he stated.
“No,” she answered, still laughing.
He shook his head in mock disappointment. She averted her eyes in response, the rather-becoming pantomime of a chastised child. The bouncer lumbered by with a case of Crown Royal perched on his shoulder and bumped into the man’s chair, pushing him closer to the girl. He was near enough to kiss her. He thought she’d been flirting with him ever since her first day of work, although it’d been so long since he’d flirted with a woman he forgot what it was like. The truth is, this was his first real opportunity to violate the rules of marriage. He wasn’t bad looking, but he knew—and took some pride in the fact—he came off as a family man, particularly when the boys had still lived at home, and his wife had held a firmer grip on reality. Women never paid much attention to him sexually, and he never gave them more than a passing glance. But this girl seemed to laugh a bit too easily around him, and she always happened to find a reason to lay a hand on his arm. He didn’t know why she was interested in him. Maybe she was just using her wiles to gain a valuable ally in the office. Maybe she meant it. Tonight he was going to find out.
He reached down for his drink, and his wedding ring pinged off the glass. They both looked down at the source of the sound, their eyes lingering on the symbol of an eternal promise encircling his finger. Then he raised the glass to his lips and took a long drink, letting the chilled scotch pour icy and hot over his tongue. She said nothing as he set his empty glass back on the bar and ordered another round.
When the bartender brought them fresh beverages, the girl still had half a glass of wine left, which she quickly knocked back. A trickle of red wine dribbled out the corner of her mouth. She wiped it away with the back of her hand, an unladylike gesture the man’s wife would never make. She noticed him looking at her and straightened her posture before taking a small, dignified sip from her new glass.
“What about golf?” she asked.
“What about it?”
“Do you play golf?”
“No. Do you?”
“No, but I thought it was like a rule or something that lawyers had to play golf.”
“Then why don’t you play golf?”
“I’m not a lawyer yet. And besides, there’s a different set of rules for girls.”
They sat there quietly for a moment. Unable to think of anything profound to say, he suggested they play a game of pool. The two quickly consumed glasses of wine left the girl even less steady on her spindly legs than before as she teetered across the floor. He felt a twinge of panic as he passed a heavyset obstetrician whose office was in the same building as their firm. He detected a hint of recognition in the doctor’s flushed face, but neither acknowledged the other. The man again cursed himself for not picking a bar farther from the office. He joined the girl at the pool table in a shadowy alcove in the back of the bar. She rested her glass on the pool table while he grabbed a couple of cues off the rack.
“No drinks on the felt, sweetheart,” the passing bouncer said, pointing up at a faded wooden sign labeled Pool Rules.
“Thanks for the tip, doll-face,” she called out to the bouncer’s back. The man’s wife would have been insulted by such a crack, but she’d never in a million years snap back at a total stranger like that. Instead, she’d stew about it for a few hours and then lecture the man for not sticking up for her. The way the girl handled herself excited him.
The man smirked and handed her a cue. “Ladies first,” he said after racking the balls.
“If you insist,” she responded, punctuating the statement with the crack of her stick against the cue ball. The balls sailed across the table in a clacking rainbow. Two balls, one stripe and one solid, dropped into the side pocket.
“Nice,” he said. “I guess you’ve played this game before.”
“Once or twice.”
She chose solids and knocked in two more balls before missing on the far corner. He then took aim at the fourteen, but the cue-ball careened off his stick and into the rail without touching a single ball.
“Guess I’m a bit rusty,” he said with a chuckle.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. They were playing bar rules, which meant there was no penalty for failing to make contact with his ball. She sank the three and came just short with the five.
“Okay,” he said, lining up on the twelve. “Let’s try this again.” He made contact, but the ball rolled to an impotent stop in the center of the table. “Son of a bitch.”
“It’s okay,” she said, “you just needed a couple of warm-up shots.”
She then sank the five that had just missed on her last turn. She stalked around to the other side of the table, set up a shot, and deposited the four in the corner pocket. Without breaking her stride, she lined up the seven and banked it off the rail and in. With a pool cue in her hand, her wobbly legs moved fluidly, as if each step was part of a carefully-choreographed dance.
All she had left was the eight-ball. She arched her back, measuring the angles with her eye. The man took a step back and admired the way her skirt held her tight young ass in place, knowing it would defy gravity until the day she woke up with three kids who perpetually needed to be ferried to and from some character-building activity, an addiction to reality TV shows, and paranoid delusions that every time her husband said he was working late at the office, he was actually fucking some bimbo born during the Clinton administration. The girl blasted the eight straight into the corner pocket. But she hit it too hard, and it caromed out of the hole and rolled back across the table.
“A stay of execution,” he said, lining up another shot at the twelve.
She leaned against the table above the corner pocket. “Put it right here.”
He lined his shot up with the center of her body, starting with her tomato-red lips, down to the soft lines of her cleavage, then to the dint of her navel peeking out from the bottom of her shirt, before settling his gaze on the mysteries below. This time the ball went in.
“There you go,” she cheered.
“Guess I just needed a little inspiration,” he replied, blood flooding his cheeks.
“Well here’s some more.” She brushed her lips against his and walked around to the other side of the table.
The cue ball had rolled to a stop next to the nine, leaving him an open shot at the side pocket. Once again, she leaned over the table, exposing a wide expanse of skin. He studied her body, which seemed to be funneling a current in his direction, driving all other distractions from his mind. He’d followed the rules for twenty years, but his wife still accused him of cheating. He resented the suspicious stares, the days of silence punctuated by tense, tearful tirades, the lonely chasm that divided their bed. It was time to break the rules. He set up his shot, drew back the cue, and thrust forward with all he had. The cue ball slammed into the nine, which rocketed into the eighteen with such force the yellow and white ball flipped up in the air and smashed into the girl’s hovering face. Blood poured from both nostrils as she dropped to the floor. The cue fell from his hands.
“Jesus Christ, I’m so sorry.”
“What the fuck?” she cried. Her nose swelled and dark pools of blood formed under the surface of the skin just below her eyes. A crowd of patrons, all male, gathered around her, all eager to lend a hand to the wounded creature on the floor. The man tried to sidle up next to her, but the bouncer elbowed him out of the way and bent down beside her.
“Everybody back up!” The circle receded six inches, though everyone continued to gawk at the girl splayed out on the barroom floor.
“Dude, did you see that?” a mop-topped bicycle messenger asked, breaking into a high-pitched giggle.
“Yeah,” came the response from a bleach-blond boy dressed all in black. “That was fucking hilarious.” Several other young men laughed as well.
The man glared at them, hoping they’d decide to move along.
“Chill out, Armani,” the bike messenger said. He puffed his chest out a bit, sizing the man up. “We’re sorry your daughter got hurt, but if you’d seen it from this angle, you’d be laughing too.”
“She’s not my daughter.”
The man stood dumbly while more patrons collected at the scene. The girl wasn’t getting up. The obstetrician from his building forced himself off his barstool and shuffled over to examine the patient. He stank of gin as he brushed past, and the aroma of antiseptic pine needles lingered in the air. He crouched down, took her chin in his hand and peered closely at her face.
“Does this hurt?” the doctor asked, pinching her nose with his thumb and forefinger. The man heard a faint crunching sound as the girl cried out in response.
The doctor labored back to his feet and announced his diagnosis to the audience: “Probable fractured nasal bone.”
The crowd dispersed, satisfied with the verdict. The doctor and the bouncer carefully drew her to her feet. She took a few steps, hunching slightly while guarding her injury with her right arm.
“I’m so sorry,” the man said.
“You broke my fucking nose.”
“I’m so sorry,” he repeated. He tried to approach her but the bouncer brushed him back.
“Just leave me alone,” she said, turning her battered face away.
“Don’t worry,” the doctor said. He paused and squinted at the man as if trying to place him before returning to his original train of thought. “She’ll be fine. We’re just going to run her next door for a quick x-ray.”
The crowd parted as the bouncer, the doctor and the girl ambled towards the door. She clutched her thin hands to her swollen, bloody face as they passed by. The man stood there with his hands in his pants pockets, watching the three figures slip out into the chaos of the city at night. The girl had left on the pool table a half-full glass of pinot noir, which the man downed before returning to the bar.
He ordered another scotch and drank alone. Though the bar was near capacity, the seats on either side of him remained empty as if the stink of failure surrounding him drove everyone away. He sipped his drink and imagined the fight he and his wife would have when he got home. He would tell her that he may have broken a nose, but he did not break the rules. Or maybe he wouldn’t tell her anything. But she would call him a cheat and a liar and maybe some day he would be at another bar with another girl and once more he would try.
Matt Hlinak is the author of “DoG” (Rooster Republic 2012) and several works of short fiction. He holds an MFA from Northwestern University, as well as a law degree from the University of Illinois. By day, he is an administrator and teacher at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois. By night, his wife and daughters tolerate his writing addiction.
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