“Do you do mocktails?”
Gene looks up from where he’s finishing off the head of a beer. A young guy is standing in front of him, probably around Gene’s age, with flushed cheeks to match his hair and ears that stick a little too far out. He’s flipping through the bar menu with a slight frown on his face.
Gene hands the beer to his previous customer, processes the payment, and turns back to the redhead. “Hi, how are you?” he says in his customer service voice. The guy looks up and blinks three times in quick succession.
“Do you do mocktails?” he asks again. “I’m driving, so…”
“Not really,” Gene replies. He glances around the rest of the bar; it’s pretty quiet. “But I can make something up for you. Fruity or creamy?”
The guy blinks quickly again. “What?”
“Do you want a fruity or creamy drink?” Gene repeats slowly.
“Oh, um. Fruity?”
“Alright,” Gene says. “What kind of fruit? I can do something tropical, pineapple, orange, lychee…”
“I like banana,” the guy blurts. Gene squints at him.
“We don’t have banana,” he says. “It’s not really… a cocktail kind of fruit.”
“Right.” The guy laughs nervously. “Um. Berry?”
“That I can do,” Gene says. He grabs the frozen raspberries and blueberries from the freezer, whacking the packets against the counter a few times to loosen up the icy mass inside. Crushing them up with some sugar syrup and mint leaves, he adds ice, grenadine, and a splash of apple juice. The guy watches him shake; Gene tries not to feel self-conscious.
“There you go,” he says, straining it over fresh ice and topping up it up with Sprite. He adds a strawberry and umbrella garnish mostly because he wants to see the guy blush again.
“Oh, wow,” the guy says, obliging Gene and turning as red as the drink. “Thank you! Um, how much…”
“I’ll just charge you for a soda,” Gene says softly. There’s something about the way the guy is standing in front of him with eyes so wide he could be Bambi that makes Gene feel generous. “Two-fifty please.” The man hands over a fiver.
“Keep the change,” he says, his ears now going as red as his cheeks, and Gene smiles and tucks the spare money into the half-full tip jar on the counter. “Thank you again,” he says, backing away from the bar with the drink in his hand. He gives Gene a final, embarrassed smile before turning and making his way over to a rowdy group of guys in the corner of the bar. When they see his drink they burst into raucous, teasing laughter.
Gene smiles to himself as he cleans up the defrosting berries on the bar. He usually hates customers who order off the menu, but something about that guy makes him almost impossible to dislike.
“Excuse me?” a voice interrupts by the register, and Gene pastes his customer smile over his real one and turns back to do his job.
The week passes quickly for Gene. He has class all day almost every day and work in the evenings. By the time Friday rolls around again Gene is keen for a sleep-in the next morning; his shift Saturday doesn’t start til half-six.
About halfway through the night Gene turns back to the counter after returning the pinot to the fridge and comes face-to-face with the redhead from last week. “Hi,” he says, smile more real than usual. “Don’t tell me you’re after another mocktail.”
The guy starts a little at the words, looks at Gene with those wide eyes and then smiles, spreading his hands slightly in embarrassment. “Driving again,” he says. “I keep trying to convince my friends to move to a rotating roster but they’re having too much fun watching me pull the short straw for the third week in a row.”
“Bad luck, huh?” Gene says, leaning forward on his elbows. The guy laughs quietly.
“The worst,” he says. “Um. Same as last week? It was really nice.”
Gene shrugs. “Sure.” The berries are already out from a cocktail he made earlier so they require less bashing against the countertop to break apart. The guy watches him closely again as he shakes the mixture; Gene turns his back for a brief moment, trying to remember what to do with his hands.
This time he adds a few mint leaves to the garnish as well, and fans a strawberry over the ice on top. “No umbrella?” the guy says when he places it on the counter.
“Thought I’d save you some teasing from your friends,” Gene says, nodding towards the group who are sitting in the same spot as last week.
“There’s no saving me from that,” the guy laughs. “Please? It’s cute.”
Gene laughs and picks out the pinkest umbrella of them all to stick in the drink. The guy’s smile when he sees it is almost blinding. “Two-fifty, right?” he asks, pulling out his wallet. He takes out a ten, even though Gene can clearly see a fiver nestled inside, and hands it over. “Keep the change,” he says again, and Gene stares, incredulous.
“You’re sure?” he says, taking the note tentatively.
“Course I’m sure,” the guy says. “It’s mostly an apology. You know, for being one of those assholes who orders off the menu.”
Gene tries to hide a grin at that but fails. He processes the order and places the change in the tip jar. “They usually are assholes,” he agrees. “But you’re alright.” This time the guy’s flush is even deeper than the colour of his drink.
“Um, thank you,” he says, squinting at Gene’s name tag. “Gene. For the drink, and… um.” Gene tilts his head to the side. The guy clears his throat. “For being berry kind.”
“What,” Gene blurts out, before bursting out laughing. “That was awful. Oh my God.”
The guy sniffs haughtily. “Well now you’re just being berry rude,” he says, making Gene laugh even harder. He maintains his lofty expression for two seconds before cracking into a grin. “I’m sorry,” he says. “Honestly. Not my best work.”
Gene catches his breath and grins back. “I would hope not.” He notices another customer approaching and gives the guy an apologetic look. “See you next week?” he says, trying not to sound too hopeful. The guy smiles down at his drink for a second.
“I’ll come prepared… with my berry best puns.”
“Leave,” Gene says, trying not to shake with laughter as he turns to serve the new customer. Clearly, by the way the girl is looking at him, he fails miserably.
The following Friday cannot come quick enough. Gene finds himself distracted in class, thinking of the guy with his shock of red hair and tragically adorable smile. It’s insane. They’ve only spoken twice, and not for any longer than five minutes each time. Gene’s served a lot of cute customers in his time, and a few genuinely funny ones too—but none of them ever occupied his thoughts like this guy is doing.
Gene really needs to learn his name.
He dresses slightly nicer for his shift that Friday. The uniform is pretty basic, just all black with enclosed shoes, but Gene makes sure to wear his slightly tighter t-shirt and jeans, even though the guy won’t be able to see them from behind the bar. When he turns up to work, Renee, the waitress, gives him one of her patented looks, but he ignores her. She can’t prove anything, anyway.
The bar is busier tonight. Gene’s long given up trying to predict when and why the rush happens, but it’s always at the most inconvenient times. When the guy shows up, the line is ten people deep and even with Renee in the bar helping him out, it’s a little overwhelming.
When the guy reaches the bar it’s Renee who serves him. “What can I get you?” she asks in her brisk, softly-accented voice.
“Uh,” the guy says, looking over and meeting Gene’s eyes with a slight frown. Gene nudges Renee.
“Swap?” he says, nodding at the guy he’s serving. “Two pale ales and a glass of rosé.”
Renee shrugs in agreement. Gene turns back to the guy. “Hey, sorry,” he says. “Bit busy tonight.”
“I can see that,” the guy says, eyebrows raised. He smiles. “Thanks for serving me. You’re one in a melon.”
Gene stares at him for a long moment before groaning. “That wasn’t even a berry pun,” he points out, shaking his head.
“I have since discovered that most berry puns revolve around it rhyming with very and I thought that would run dry real quick,” the guy says. “So I expanded my repertoire. I hope you’re grapeful.”
“That’s even worse!” Gene says with a laugh, but cuts it short when he realises the bar line is in no hurry to thin out. “Sorry. I, um, actually need to serve you quick tonight.”
The guy shrugs a little. “Yeah, I figured. Just a Sprite, if that’s easier.”
Gene nods and pours the drink, then on a whim adds a dash of grenadine and an umbrella. “To keep the memory alive,” he says when he places the drink on the counter. The guy’s mouth folds into a soft grin. Gene hasn’t noticed before but he has gentle dimples in his cheeks; the dim bar lighting makes them almost invisible. “Two-fifty,” he says. The guy checks his wallet and flushes.
“Um. Do you have an eftpos minimum?”
Gene shakes his head and takes the card from the guy, tapping it on the eftpos machine. He glances at the name. “Need a receipt for that, Edward?” he asks. The guy—Edward, he doesn’t look like an Edward—groans.
“Only the nuns call me that,” he says. “And no, I’m good.” He looks into his wallet again. “I don’t have any change to tip you.”
“Last week was more than enough,” Gene says, waving it away, but Edward frowns. “Seriously, Edward.”
Gene blinks. “What?”
“That’s what my friends call me.” He pokes at the umbrella in his drink. “Babe. It’s my name.”
“Uh huh.” Gene catches Renee’s eye, who is looking between him and the line of customers with raised eyebrows. “I gotta keep serving,” he says apologetically. “See you round… Edward.”
“Whatever,” Babe says, rolling his eyes. “I’ll mango… mangoing… mangone.” He walks backwards slowly with the words and this time Gene can’t help but laugh.
“<I’ve watched David Attenborough documentaries with more sexual tension than you two,>” Renee says in French. “<That was disgusting.>”
“<Don’t judge me,>” Gene replies after he’s taken the next customer’s order. “<I know you call your girlfriend my little cabbage.>”
“<You two are still worse!>” she sing-songs. “<Or did you forget, you’re one in a melon.>”
Gene doesn’t dignify that with a response.
Gene next sees Babe on a Wednesday. The bar’s pretty dead, like it usually is mid-week, and Gene is wiping down the countertop from the other side when someone clears their throat behind him. He turns to find himself almost nose-to-nose with Babe, whose eyes dart up to meet his from where Gene is almost certain they were checking out his ass a moment ago.
“It’s Wednesday,” Gene says.
“Not prepeared to see me?” Babe says, and it takes Gene a moment of staring at his waggling eyebrows to get it. When he does he closes his eyes.
“<Lord give me strength,>” he says, opening them again to find Babe gaping at him. “What?”
“I… didn't know you spoke French.”
“Cajun French, but yeah.” Gene shrugs. “So?”
“So nothing,” Babe squeaks out. “Um. Can I get a drink?”
“Only cause you’re payin’ me, Edward,” Gene says, slinging the cloth over his shoulder and making his way round the side of the bar. “Driving tonight?”
“Um, no,” Babe says, rubbing the back of his head. “But can I still have the mocktail? It’s… actually really nice.”
“Don’t you mean berry nice?” Gene deadpans, and Babe snorts. “And I know. I made it didn’t I?”
Babe lets out an incredulous laugh. “Cocky, much?” he says, and Gene raises an eyebrow.
“Guess you’ll see,” he says, voice sounding far more confident than the butterflies going into overdrive in his stomach are making him feel. Babe makes a choking noise behind him but Gene ignores it; focuses on what to do with his arms, with his hands.
Babe takes a seat at the side of the counter this time. “Friends not here?” Gene asks, packing the berries away into the freezer and then leaning forward on his elbows into Babe’s space.
“Naw,” Babe says with a bashful grin. “Studying or working, most of them.”
“Then how come you’re out and about?”
Babe shrugs, but the hands around his drink are shaking. “Not working today. Didn’t feel like studying.”
“Yeah?” Gene asks, feeling his eyes crinkle in the way he hates as he smiles but being powerless to stop it. Babe doesn’t seem to mind. He swallows heavily and meets Gene’s gaze.
“Yeah,” he says. “See, there’s this bartender…”
At that moment the doors swing open and a small group of twenty-something girls stumbles in, laughing and swaying and clearly already drunk. One of them is wearing a Bride-to-Be sash. Gene straightens up from the bar. “Sorry, I should…”
“No, no, it’s okay,” Babe says with a small smile. “I’ll be here.”
And it would be okay, except one of the girls drops her drink the moment Gene hands it to her; glass shatters all over the floor and then suddenly there’s quite a bit of blood and Gene-the-bartender slips into Gene-the-med-student and by the time the ambulance has taken away the girl and her crying friends, the seat at the end of the bar is as empty as the glass sitting on top of it. Gene sighs. Takes the glass and dumps the last of the ice in the sink and only when he moves to wipe the counter down does he see it. Babe has flipped one of the bar coasters over, found a pencil from God-knows-where, and doodled a picture of a cut open lime on the back. The accompanying caption reads Sorry I’m so bad at pickup limes :( in Babe’s messy but legible scrawl. There’s a phone number underneath. Gene takes the coaster with trembling hands and places it into his back pocket for safe-keeping.
From: Unknown Number
orange you sweet
From: Edward ❤️
i’m passionfruit about you
when do you get off friday?
From: Gene ❤️
wouldn’t you like to know?
From: Edward ❤️
i’ll be there :) <3
Two months later
“I’m thinking something tropical this time,” Babe says, dropping into the seat by the bar and almost giving Gene a heart attack. “Wanna know why?”
Gene rolls his eyes but can’t help the smile that unfurls across his face. “Even if I say no I expect you’ll tell me anyway,” is what he says.
“You’re right there,” Babe replies with a grin. “It’s because, Gene, if you were a fruit… you’d be a fineapple.”
“I’m breaking up with you,” Gene says.
“But we make a perfect pear!”
“Officially. Right now.”
“C’mon, Gene,” Babe says with a laugh that Gene feels right down to his toes. “I’m coconuts about you.”
The bar is quiet and no one is around to watch them; Gene leans forward with his elbows on the counter and Babe meets him halfway. The kiss tastes like summer. “I love you too,” Gene says when they pull apart, and the smile Babe gives him is sweeter than any drink he can make in this bar—both on and off the menu.