First Of All
“Settle this one for us,” said Dave, waving his beer bottle as he spoke, “because otherwise Max and I will be arguing all night after we get home.”
“Nah, we won’t.” Max leaned back. “Point one – I am so getting laid this evening with that dude on the other side of the bar, and that particular party will not be at casa Maximilliano. Mostly because I’ve lost my toothbrush and Dave won’t tell me where he’s hiding his.” Max wiggled his eyebrows in the general direction of a completely oblivious patron. “Point two – I’s always right, y’all, truth to power.”
“Please never be a vaguely offensive stereotypical evangelist preacher again, dude,” Brad frowned, “notwithstanding your obviously incredible charisma and persuasiveness. Oh, and your ‘marriage license’”. Jane and Brad mimed the air quotes together. It was cute with a bitter edge, like a kitten wielding a razor blade dipped in lemon juice.
“Testify!” said Alex, nodding slightly dreamily before remembering that no, she did not have a crush on Max any more, she still had nightmares about being crushed by falling burrito debris and choking to death on his chest hair, and –
“Not helping, Al. Besides, the last time you had a religious experience was when you thought you saw God in a hotdog.”
“Need I remind you how much mustard that guy put in the bun – and yet none of it got on my sweater? The Lord works in mysterious ways, Brad.”
“PEOPLE! Focus!” Jane snapped her fingers. “Let’s get this thing done. Pirates. Ninjas. Go. I need to commit your answers to memory so I can use it against one of you to win an argument when we're fifty and still have no other friends.”
“Do we have to choose?” Penny complained, taking a sip of her wine. “I’m kind-of over the whole pirates versus ninjas thing anyway, guys, you’ve been debating it since college and you’re never going to reach a consensus. I’ve put disturbingly Jane-esque levels of thought into this and I really think there are pros and cons to lives both nautical and stealthy. Besides, all six of us are here, we’ll totes have a hung jury situation on our hands because it’ll damage the group equilibrium if we come down either way. We’re weirdly psychic like that.” Penny looked a little bit disgusted with herself. “Why have I spent so much time thinking about this?”
“We’re grown adults, Pen,” said Dave. “Okay, well, Max doesn’t count. And Alex is pretty tiny. But still, we can get through this. Plus I really need to pee and I feel like the barman judges me every time I use the restroom so I want to go home.”
Penny sighed. “Okay. If we’re doing this, we’re doing it together. Counting down from three. Or san, if you’re a ninja supporter. Three, two, one –“
Six voices spoke out together.
“Ninjas,” said Jane, Brad, Dave and Penny. Technically, Jane and Brad just mumbled something non-committal, but “muuuh-muuuuh” sounds closer to “ninja” than “pirate”.
“Pirates,” said Alex and Max.
“A ha ha ha ha ha ha! In your face, Max! Four versus two! Ninjas WIN! Now please can we go home so I can take a leak?” Dave’s moment of great triumph was also clearly a moment of great strain.
Max slumped back, visibly shocked. “How could I lose? Where’s the tie? You, Hartz, are a psychic Judas. I thought we’d agreed that pirates were cooler because you could sing saucy sea shanties and wear awesome hats?”
“I know, I know, I’m sorry.” Penny looked as supportive as she could. “But pirates don’t get to fly around Chinese forests on wires, which is so going on my bucket list.”
“I know what this is,” Max retorted, “This isn’t about ninjas, mostly because ninjas are Japanese, not Chinese. This is Crouching Hartz, Hidden Rose, and all the filth that my pop culture reference implies! This is because you frenched Dave, right?”
Inasmuch as one can have a moment of stunned silence in a bar, somehow there was one.
“Oops.” said Max.
Dave and Penny shared a glance. It conveyed a simple message – crap.
“Dude!” Dave started babbling. “We had a code! The bro code! More specifically, the bro-therhood-of-clandestine-monks-who-don’t-tell-secrets code! I knew I shouldn't have told you about this!”
Max babbled just as fast. “I thought it was ironic! I thought we weren’t doing codes anymore! I thought you knew I couldn’t be a monk because I have too much hair! You can't class a cincture as a chunky belt!”
“When did you guys get your mack on?” While Brad and Jane merely looked gobsmacked, Alex was almost creepily interested. “Beans. Spill them. Plus – why does Max know? More importantly, why don’t the rest of you guys like pirates? Pirates are awesome. They say “Yarrrrr!” and you can get a really good haircut with one of those cutlasses, I'd bet.”
“I’m saying nothing, and neither is David, for he is a gentleman and would never reveal a lady’s secrets.” Penny pursed her lips together. Dave nodded in agreement.
“Tag team, boo. You take her, I’ll take him.” Brad murmured to Jane out of the corner of his mouth.
“Not the stare. Please, no, not the stare.” Alex whimpered.
Brad and Jane fixed Dave and Penny respectively with a Stare. Not just any stare. This was a stare of such ice-cold focus, such pin-point intensity, that it would drill into the Earth’s core, freeze the magma therein and then shatter it into countless tiny pieces. Thankfully, such power was only metaphorical, but it was a pretty fearsome Stare anyway.
Penny’s mouth twitched almost imperceptibly. Dave began to sweat through his shirt.
The Stare continued. Brad and Jane tilted their heads slightly to the side for maximum impact.
“It’s blinding!” Max was almost crying. “It burns me and I’m not even looking directly at it! I’ll tell you everything! I have the whole thing on film on Dave’s computer!”
“Result!” said Jane, giving Brad an almighty high-five. “The fallout zone is where the real damage lies.” She hesitated for a moment. “That was probably pretty insensitive, wasn’t it?”
“Yup,” said Brad, “but I’ll roll with it.”
“Best. Worst. Thing. Ever.” Alex was slightly agog. “We have to watch it again.”
“Guys, seriously, enough with this, that’s four times now...” Dave was stood in the corner of the apartment. Alex, Jane and Brad sat clustered together on the couch. They even had a bowl of popcorn. Penny was sat behind them, curled up in a small ball on the floor and using the couch as a shield.
“Again! Again!” Brad clapped his hands with girlish glee. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”
Jane’s voice was filled with wonder. “It’s like an iceberg crashing into the Sun and releasing a swarm of angry mosquitoes carrying malaria. It’s the ultimate disaster.”
“Please, guys...” Penny whimpered from behind the couch.
“I think it’s time to REWIND!” Dave's laptop was hooked up to the TV and Max stood by, a manic grin on his face, radiating childish glee from every orifice.
“REWIND!” chorused the couch-bound trio.
“Oh, yay, let's watch it again.” Dave's head was in his hands.
With a press of a button the video restarted.
“You sure the camera's not actually on?” Dave wandered up to the video camera that Max had set up in the living room area, poking at the screen with his finger. “It's just a dummy?”
“Can you see a little red light, Dave? Then no, it's not on!” said Max in a slightly sing-song manner from somewhere off screen.
“Can you see a little red light, Dave? Then no, it's not on!” chorused Alex, Brad and Jane, giggling as they watched the video again.
There was a table set up in Max and Dave's living room with a couple of small chairs on either side of it. As Dave moved out of the way of the camera's field of vision he revealed Penny sitting in one of them. He sat down opposite her with a sigh.
“Look, Dave, Max really isn't recording this.” Penny placed her hands on the table, looking as caring as she possibly could. “I just think that you need to get over your camera-shyness if you're ever going to get your food truck the exposure it really needs. You need to be able to run an ad that doesn't make people go and buy hot dogs, or show you making awkward thumbs-up signs like that one slightly creepy uncle everyone has. Trust me, I'm Penny, this is what I do.”
“What you do, Pen, is organise amazing parties for big swanky fundraising types, not PR coaching. You can't dress me in fancy pants clothes and raffle me off for cancer.”
“Trust me, it'll be fine. You will be so amazing you will go all the way through a-mah-zing and into full-on crah-maze-some. That's crazy amazing awesome, by the way. New word. Going full on Webster's entry with this one.”
“We know how much you love the dic, Penster.” Max deadpanned.
“Haven't you got somewhere to drive? Like, away?” Dave had crossed his arms like a particularly grumpy teenager. “It's bad enough that you've set up that stupid placebo camera to film this without you hanging around like some dodgy director in grease-stained sweats.”
“Oh please please please can I direct you guys? You know I'm good at this stuff. It'll be crahmazeballs.”
“Crahmazesome,” corrected Penny. “GO, Max. We'll be fine without you.”
“Fine, FINE. I guess I shouldn't keep that old lady sitting in the car any longer anyway, it's been half an hour since I said I'd take her to the Field Museum.” As Max crossed the camera once more he gave a quick thumbs-up into the screen before disappearing from view. The door audibly opened and shut as he left.
Dave sighed. “Seriously, Pen, do we really have to do this?”
“Come on, it'll be fun. It'll be like college theater class all over again!”
“I didn't take theater in college. I had to sit there while you ran lines with Max for your all-female-plus-one-gay production of The Royal Hunt of the Sun, and try not to laugh every time you shouted 'Come see my mountains!'”
“Okay, first of all that production was an intense examination of gender and sexuality through the prism of the conquistadors and their relationship with the noble Aztec locals.” Penny somehow managed to pronounce 'conquistadors' with an accent worthy of Speedy Gonzales. “Second of all, the point is that we need to work on some role play here. Before we get you going on a full blown scripted commercial, we've got some other issues to address. Your customer interaction skills can be a little bit lacking even without being on camera. You can't keep winking at everyone as you give them their order.”
“My winks close the deal!” Dave protested, “If I want someone to fork out thirty cents for some extra mayo I just give 'em the old Rose twitch, turn on a bit of charm, and wham, signed, sealed, delivered.” He demonstrated.
Penny frowned. “They're paying out of pity. You look like you've had a stroke. Twice. I've watched you make grown men cry with that.”
“it was windy! Brad had something in his eye!”
“You know I didn't, right?” said Brad. “Sorry, dude. That was nasty.”
“In his eye was the horrifying image of you winking, yes. Anyway, just pretend the camera isn't there and I will pretend to be an old man customer who wants to buy something from your van of culinary delights. It's completely normal.”
“Fine, Penny. Whatever gets this over and done with faster.”
“Great! Ready? I'm going to start.”
Penny adopted an over-exaggerated hunch in her chair, like something out of a silent horror film. “Afternoon, son. Is this that Steak Me Home Tonight I saw on TV? Wow, I really do want a sub from your van.”
Dave stiffened slightly, his eyes going wide. “Why-hello-there-old-timer,” he uttered (speech was too generous a description for the staccato sounds heaving their way out of his mouth), “Welcome-to-Steak-Me-Home-Tonight-what-can-I-get-you-it's-great-to-see-you-out-and-about.” He gave a double thumbs-up to no-one in particular and a smile froze halfway through forming on his lips. “Nothing-too-rich-in-case-you-die-and-sue-me-ha-ha-ha!”
Penny dropped character. “Oh dear lord,” she deadpanned, “there are children in Africa dying because of what you just said. That was like if you tasered a Speak And Spell and put it in one of those NBC sitcoms where the early episodes mistake crushing awkwardness and embarrassment for hilarity.”
“You freaked me out with whatever that Hoagie of Notre Dame thing you just pulled was!” Dave waved his hands in exasperation. “That was like, blammo!, right out of my comfort zone. No more role play. Just be you, but if you didn't know more than is strictly healthy about me, my past sexual partners and what kind of socks I like to wear on Monday mornings, that kind of thing.”
Penny pouted. “Fine, but you're missing out on an amazing Southern belle impression that I was just dying to bust out. I mean really bust out, I was going to get mah Pennies dropping if you know what ah mean, sugah.” She laughed and attempted to toss her hair slightly; an overenthusiastic headshake, however, meant that most of her hair ended up in her face, which spoilt the effect somewhat.
Even on camera, Dave visibly winced.
“Why did you think that accent was a good idea, Pen?” said Jane through a mouthful of popcorn. “I mean, I am the undisputed queen of awesome accents, and even I wouldn't have pulled that one off. And by undisputed, I mean if you dispute it I will talk at you in my best Cockney until you agree, so don't even think about it, guv.”
Only a muffled groan came from behind the couch.
“Okay,” said Penny, attempting to elegantly remove strands of hair from her mouth. “So we totally don't know each other, I just want a delicious sub and you are going to sell it to me. We can still work with this, I am Penny, this is what I do, it's all good.”
“I told you,this isn't what you do-”
“Hush, David! I am in the moment of being me.” Penny snapped her fingers, before taking an exaggerated breath and relaxing into... being herself.
“Hi there, sandwich sales person! Mmm, steak? I shouldn't, but for such a charming man as yourself I will!”
Dave seemed more relaxed than before, failing to notice the camera entirely. “Certainly, ma'am. Something meaty always goes down well. Can I get you any condiments?”
“Seriously, guys?” Brad was incredulous. “How did you not guess how this was going to turn out? I mean, I know Penny can turn any sales interaction into softcore pornography, but Dave?”
“WE WERE ROLE PLAYING!” chorused Dave and Penny – and, in fact, Alex, Jane and Max as well. “WE WERE CAUGHT UP IN THE MOMENT!”
“I'm always good for a little extra.” Penny giggled slightly. “A bit of sauce sounds good.”
Dave mimed putting dressing on a sandwich in front of him. The associated hand gestures were banned in several African countries for obscenity.
“There you go, ma'am. Is there anything else I can do for you?” Dave, despite all efforts to the contrary, reflexively winked. The effect was no less horrifying to the casual observer.
However, there was a brief moment of nothing. One of those moments when the world slams the brakes on, takes stock, prepares itself for something so earth-shatteringly momentous, and then moves on.
Such a moment happened before Penny and Dave lunged at each other's faces across the table.
“Slo mo replay!” cried Max, skipping back over the video to the fateful moment before putting the playback at half speed.
There, frame by frame, juddering towards each other with digitally encoded lust, went Ms Hartz and Mr Rose. Full on, arms grabbing, lips locking, face sucking – the whole epic shebang. For a good minute of slow motion, the group watched in fascination at how awful the moment was before Max sped the footage back up again.
“Mmmph, mmmmph!” Penny protested, although strangely making no real effort to push Dave away from her until he finally recoiled himself.
“Oh god! What did you just do!” Dave's eyes had gone wide. “You gave me signals!”
“Me? It was mutual! And you hit me in the face when you moved in for the kill!”
“You just bit me! And I don't even know how because I didn't even reach your mouth!”
“You've just licked my chin!”
“I think I bruised my arm”
“WHY ARE WE DOING THIS AND WHAT WERE WE DOING ANYWAY-” Penny stopped and gasped. “Oh no. Oh no no no no no.”
“Dave. The camera's on.”
Dave stared and then giggled slightly. “No, no, no, there's no red light. Max said-”
“Think very carefully about what you just said, Dave.”
“Oh dear lord no.”
“We were going to use it to show you how good you were when we'd finished.”
Dave was only halfway out of the chair before he lunged for the camera, shouting “MAX!” like a man possessed, as Max hit the stop button on the playback.
“Like I said,” grinned Alex, “Best. Worst. Thing. Ever. One more round?”
“You betcha!” said Brad.
“So, when Max shows them all the video this is going to be a really embarrassing end to the night, isn't it?”
Dave and Penny had lingered behind while Max led Brad, Jane and Alex in a merry dance ahead of them, almost skipping back to the apartment in his excitement.
“On a list of 'moments I never wanted my ex-fiancee to see', I think this one ranked pretty high.”
A moment of awkward silence passed before Penny spoke again.
“I think we kind of need a do-over. Just so, you know, we can get it right this time. Because obviously we're never going to kiss again, ever, because... no. Right?”
“Obviously.” Dave nodded in vigorous agreement. “Got to get it right.”
“You remember I still need to pee, don't you?”
“Nor do I.”
Penny and Dave stood in the middle of the road. Somewhere in the distance they could hear a cab driver shouting unintelligibly. Two drunk women ran past weeping. One of the street lamps above them had its glass smashed, and the light cast a jagged glimmer across the pavement as it flickered irritatingly above them.
Yet as Dave tenderly brought his hands to Penny's face, and as Penny tilted her head back slightly, and as they kissed each other – really kissed each other... none of it really mattered. This time, the world froze simply to enjoy the moment.
“Oh.” breathed Penny, as their lips parted. “That was...”
“And again,” said Dave, “yup. That was.”
Penny thought for a moment. “Do-over?”
Dave shrugged. “Some other time? Just to check we can't do better.”