To the few that know of its existence, Jager’s Bar in downtown Tacoma is something of a sanctuary.
A common basement bar, frequented by only a steady few esteemed and unassuming flannel-clad locals. Low-key enough that it hasn’t yet been discovered by the mobs of college kids, but not divey enough to come with a constant reek of piss.
Original wood furnishings. Low lighting. Billiards tables. Quiet piano jazz music playing in the background. It all lent itself to an atmosphere of solitude and serenity. The kind of environment that could calm a brewing storm in a man’s heart.
Like the one that rages within Kerry Kuroyama, at this late hour.
Within moments of taking his seat, an empty tumbler materializes before him.
“So… how long did this one last?”
Jeff, the gaunt, graying proprietor of the establishment, has put enough years into the trade to know exactly what’s eating at someone without them ever saying a word.
Kerry takes a moment to crunch the numbers.
“Three months?” he guesstimates. “And some change?”
Jeff clicks his tongue and shakes his head. “Barely enough time to get to know you…”
The bartender goes for something on the top shelf. A green bottle joins his empty tumbler on the bar.
The Hakushu Eighteen Year Old Peated Malt. Very exclusive. Only two-thousand bottles made.
It goes without saying that Jeff is the kind of proprietor who knows his clientele very well.
He gives the glass some ice, pours out three fingers, and slides it into Kerry’s waiting hand with the grace of an Olympic curler.
“First one’s on me, Don Juan.”
Kerry, certified dime that he is, raises his drink and salutes.
“Or… maybe it’s the perfect amount of time for someone to get to know exactly who I am.”
She was talking about something, and he had zoned out at some point.
Now she was standing over him, two steaming plates from the kitchen in either hand.
“Sorry… I didn’t realize you were so engrossed in your work,” she said pointedly. “I was just saying, I got this recipe from my brother.”
There was a tinge of sarcasm in her voice. Maybe she intended to be playful and catty. A slap on the wrist, for not being appropriately engaged in her lengthy monologue on the joys of cooking with rosemary.
It was her emphasis on the word “work” that bothered him. Like what he was doing was anything but.
He was on his couch, replaying the Hall and Bolamba match. Studying movements. Taking mental notes. Measuring the meticulous details, like distance, and timing, and stamina, and resolve. Or trying to, in any case.
So, yes. He very much considered it to be work. And she was interrupting.
“He visited Naples last year,” she went on, setting one of the plates into his lap and joining him on the couch. “Doing research for his vineyard–wait, did I tell you my brother has his own vineyard?”
She had. Several times, in fact.
Along with so many other “interesting” factoids about her life and associations that he never asked for. Like her father being a college professor. Or her mother being an author. Or her best friend being Shawn Kemp’s illegitimate eighth kid.
“Yeah, he grows just outside of Yakima,” she continued. “Well, he and some other investors. I guess it’s like a big deal, though. I mean, world-renown! Like it was featured on a Netflix reality show a couple years back. It’s crazy how he has all these ventures in life, but then, I guess that’s why he was always our parents’ favorite…”
He couldn’t think of any other way to respond. None of this came off as particularly interesting to him.
As far as girlfriends went, she was a Catch-22; an ass that wouldn’t quit, and a mouth that wouldn’t stop.
On and on she went, one tangent into the next. An endless, oratory string of nauseatingly subtle humblebrags. And he was just there, a receptacle whose purpose was to listen to her talk about herself.
Kerry, hardly the conversationalist by his own admission, tolerated it as best he could. But it couldn’t be helped that it all felt so trifling and inconsequential to him.
He redirected his attention back to the screen, where the match was still playing out. The sight of the Generalissimo being on the receiving end of a low blow made him wince. Something that definitely deserved a bit of consideration.
“Soooo, tell me what you think,” she said, staring at him expectedly.
She was referring to the plate in his lap. Seared chicken, steamed asparagus, and mashed potatoes. Prepared and presented like it was ready for Instagram.
Her eyes were pressing down on him, waiting for the reaction. Fishing for that validation.
He cut into the chicken, chewed, and swallowed it down. If anything, just to get through with it.
The smile was forced. In reality, the food tasted just fine. Because tragically, Kerry was not much of a foodie, and without any meaningful or educated opinion on the subject of gourmet cooking.
Being the whisky connoisseur was more of his thing. Strawbviously.
“Good?” she parroted with a chuckle. “Is that all you have to say?”
Kerry stared back, confused.
Was there anything else that needed to be said?
Back on the screen, the Halls were standing in the ring. Triumphant and celebrating.
He’d missed the finish.
“You know, my mom still gives me shit about being unmarried and over thirty.”
Kerry loses himself in his drink while he speaks. Jeff listens to his patron in silence, absentmindedly cleaning a glass.
“But I mean, really, what does she know? Her and my dad were just kids when they had me. Even then, they only had the sixteen years together. They never had to live with each other into their forties. Never had to sit there and slowly watch each other grow old, little by little. The leukemia saw to that…”
He shakes his head. The sigh that follows deep and heavy with years of untended emotional baggage.
“The thing is, the closer these women creep up on thirty, the more they think they see something in me that isn’t really there.”
He finishes off what’s left in his glass.
“Because by that point in their lives, they’re so desperate to lock someone down–anyone that can give them that warm, fuzzy, everlasting feeling of companionship–they’ll see whatever they want to see.”
Jeff pours out another.
“And they’ll blindly look past the fact that I’m a goddamn heartless asshole, just to hang onto the hope that I’m ‘the One’ they’ve been waiting for.”
“So my friend Jenna is coming down from Vancouver tonight, and I was thinking, maybe we could do dinner? Does Six Seven sound nice?”
The question caught Kerry by surprise. He had just returned home from his morning run and was midway through the act of hydrating when she moseyed on him with this ambush.
He made her wait for the answer, finished his gulp of water and taking a moment to catch his breath. Doing his best to hide the expression of what-the-fuckitude that desperately wanted to show itself on his face.
“I was planning to meet up with Sonny later.”
Sonny Silver, specifically. The technical marvel and Seattle wrestling legend.
Their association was one of the many benefits of being in a group like Vae Victis. Working personally with the notoriously hard-nosed veteran down at his Silver Lining’s Academy over the past year had been a boon to Kerry’s in-ring improvement.
Not to mention his work in PRIME. Especially if he had any hopes of hanging with the ones on top.
“Kerry, is work all you think about?”
She said it with a chuckle, in an effort to be light and bubbly.
Still, right then and there, the answer was obviously yes.
He wanted to remind her of the importance of his routine. That getting this time in was crucial in preparation for the next match. That canceling on Sonny fucking Silver was practically a slap in the face of a man who’s time was extremely valuable. That this was what she signed up for, when she made the decision to shack up with a professional athlete.
But there was no easy way to put that to her, other than his famously blunt and off-putting manner of personal expression. And having to explain himself on that front would have been more of a hassle than he felt like enduring.
He sucked in a breath, and silently took a bite from the shit sandwich of compromise.
“…I guess I can see Sonny tomorrow.”
She smiled, and kissed him.
He stood there, and took it.
“I don’t believe in a ‘One’, Jeff. I think that’s just some bullshit that people tell themselves so they can sleep at night. A hope to hold out for, lest they live with the constant dread of dying alone.”
Kerry takes a sip from the refreshed tumbler.
“But millions go out that way every day, and nobody sheds a tear for those poor bastards. Why should any else be different?”
His face wrinkles into a sneer.
“Might be an unpopular opinion here, but I feel the need to be loved is the supreme weakness in all human beings.”
Jeff, still listening along, quizzically arches an eyebrow.
“I’d go as far as to call it a self-imposed addiction. One so severe that people willingly cast aside their dignity and yolk themselves to the first living, breathing anchor they can find.”
Kuroyama hammers his index finger into the bar
“One that will never shut. The fuck. UP.”
“OH GOD! OH BABE! OH KERRY!”
Goddamn. There she went again.
Kerry’s teeth were grinding. Out of impatience, rather than pleasure.
Internally, he was going through sequences of holds and transitions. Attempting to envision his match with Hall move by move. In his mind’s eye, it was all laid out as an endless flowchart of potentials and risks and contingencies. Three-dimensional chess, in a long, violent dance.
But it was hard to concentrate with her squirming around underneath him and losing her shit on the most vanilla, half-hearted fucking imaginable.
He hastened the thrusts to help her to get where she wanted to be. The sooner they were done, the sooner he could get his mind back on task.
“OH FUCK! OH YES! OH FUCK! OH YES!”
Kerry’s eyes rolled. Christ on a stick, this was borderline embarrassing.
When she finally climaxed and went limp, Kerry rolled to the side and subtly disposed of the condom. No need for her to notice it was empty, and look too hard into the meaning of that.
He had at least a few seconds to himself before she rolled onto his side, conforming her body against his.
“Oh, babe…” she said breathlessly, running a hand across his toned chest. “Babe, that was… oh, God, that was amazing!”
Her euphoria fell on deaf ears. Kuroyama was thinking about how easy it would be to switch into a kimura lock from her position.
She was in heaven.
He was in hell.
Kerry’s voice drips with contempt.
“I’m surrounded by them, Jeff. Mouths that speak. And say. And squeal, and scream, and cry, and howl, and plead, and piss, and moan, and meander, and mumble, and seldom, if ever, provide my life with anything of use. Begging for food. Warmth. Company. Attention. Validation…”
“Wherever I go, wherever I look, there are all these fucking mouths.”
He punishes the existence of his own with another swash of liquid gold.
“I’ll never understand how other people put up with it. How people can so willingly enslave themselves to it. How so few seem to perceive the benefits–the freedom–of solitude…”
“But I guess that’s the thing I’m beginning to learn about myself, Jeff. I’m just not much of a lover.”
He shakes the glass.
Jeff the bartender pours another.
“Deep down, what I am… is a hater.”
“Babe, my God, slow DOWN!”
Kerry came to a halt halfway to the next row of machines, unable to resist flashing her a look of reproach.
“I need to keep the cardio going.”
She practically insisted on coming after weeks of incessant and passive-aggressive “gee, would be nice to work out with you sometime” statements. Now here she was, realizing that when the Emerald Apex hit the gym, he hit it hard.
Now she stood slumped from exhaustion, face pleadingly scrunched.
“Couldn’t we just take it easy on the treadmills?”
Kerry sighed impatiently. It seemed like an opportune time to suggest she take an Uber back and let him do his thing. But he also understood that in saying that, he’d be opening the floodgates to an entirely different river of shit.
One that he wasn’t in any present mood to deal with. Especially in public.
“Okay, fine, treadmills…”
He led the way, blood pumping strong and moving on the balls of his feet. She was at his heels, struggling to keep up.
When they got there and claimed a pair of machines, Kerry set his incline to max and fired it up at eighteen kilos. Might as well make chicken salad out of chicken shit.
Next to him, unsurprisingly, she went with a slow gait. The kind of pace one goes when they want to rest and rehydrate.
And, of course, talk.
“I’m not going to lie, babe, you’ve been different since you’ve been working for this new company. I mean, I know what it’s like starting a new job, and all the stress and anxiety that comes with that. This was this one job I got from my friend Taya–she’s the one I’ve known since high school, remember? Funny story, her dad is a Starbucks executive. Anyway, she got me this job working in an office, and I remember it being just very, very hard adapting to a new environment. So I mean, I can understand if there’s things you want to talk about. On that note, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about…”
Kerry, now at a full sprint and in his zone, was no longer hearing her. He tapped the Air Pod lodged in his ear to resume his podcast, and her voice disappeared behind another.
“This is Reed Schwartzman, and you are listening to the Dropkick Digest. On tonight’s show, we’ll be reviewing PRIME’s ReVival Thirty-Eight…”
Peace at last.
“Not that I enjoy being that way. It’s just who I am by nature. It’s where my mind automatically goes, whenever I see, hear, or experience anything that offends my sensibilities.”
“I’d help it if I could. But why be anything other than honest with myself? Fact is, the ‘romance’ part of my brain is atrophied. Starved. Maybe even past the point of return.”
Kerry gives the Hakushu bottle a tap with the rim of his tumbler, punctuating his remark with a soft ‘ting’ sound.
“Maybe that’s why I prefer green over pink. Because green is the color of ambition.”
He sighs, and drinks again. At thirty bucks a pour, he savors every drop.
“And there’s plenty out there who would think me sad and miserable for feeling that way. But then, why do I care about what any of those desperate, weak-minded, validation-seeking fucks think of me?”
“The way I see it, if it means getting what I want out of this life–if it means getting myself into the semifinals… then I’d call it a necessary sacrifice.”
Kerry’s head snapped up from his phone.
It came out quick and terse, but it couldn’t be helped. His ire had already been raised by the tense exchange of texts he was in the middle of.
“Did you hear any of what I just said?”
No, he did not humor whatever trifling-ass bullshit she was going on about this time.
“I’m dealing with something here.”
He was only now learning about his training partner and jackass cousin Zack taking off to Germany without notice. To do work for that other company.
Pulling this shit a week out from the quarterfinals match was not something he was ready to deal with. Now, he was coming to grips with the possibility of having to use that imbecile Scott as a replacement.
“I said, I think we should talk.”
More than ready to rip off this lingering band-aid, Kerry powered off the screen and set the phone aside.
“Okay, let’s hear it.”
“So… we talked.”
“Well, more accurately, she talked. For like a good half hour. All the usual shit, about how I’ve been distant, and how it’s always a struggle keeping my attention, and how it doesn’t feel like I’m enjoying my time with her, and how hard it is for her when I’m out of town so much… blah fucking blah.”
He swills the whisky around within its tumbler, still stewing on the words.
“Nothing I haven’t heard before, from every other woman that spent enough time with me to realize who I really was…”
He levels his gaze back onto the bartender, still silently watching and listening from his place on the other side of the counter.
“So then I spoke, and I spoke from the heart. Really. I said the words that I believed she needed to hear. I said, ‘I hear you, I understand you, and I’m truly sorry to have hurt you. If this is your decision, then I accept it, and support it.’ Because I figure, that’s it. Sometimes things don’t work out. So you deal with it, and you move on. Like adults.”
He chuckled, raising the glass again for another sip.
“Well, turns out… what she needed to hear wasn’t quite what she wanted to hear.”
“Seriously!? That’s all you have to say?”
She continued to stare at him in a mixture of disbelief and scorn.
Kerry could only stare back, dumbfounded.
What more, really, did she really want from him? Was he supposed to burst to his feet and pound the walls with rage? Was he supposed to break down bawling, begging her not to leave?
No, he wasn’t about to do that. Because none of this pedantic drama she was throwing at his feet really mattered to him in the long run. He could take it or leave it
All that mattered was getting to the semifinals. And lately, she had been nothing but a distraction.
“Ah, fuck this!” she finally exclaimed, electing not to wait around for an honest answer to her question. She grabbed her bag and stormed out, slamming the door behind her.
He listened as her car outside started up and peeled out. Then the silence set in, and finally, he was alone.
Finally, he was himself once more.
As if nothing had changed, he picked up his phone to make the call to Scott.
There was work to be done.
“The both of us want the same thing, Hall.”
It’s late. Jager’s has closed up for the night. Our friendly bartender Jeff is nowhere to be seen.
It’s just us and Kerry.
And the green whisky bottle, looking a lot lighter than it was when he first walked in.
“We just want to be acknowledged.”
He swivels around in his seat to face us.
“Sadly, I’m just not the kind of animal that fully resonates with the flowery and flippant notion of ‘love’. That common human weakness that keeps so many of us from being our true selves.
“That’s not to discredit what it’s done for you. There’s a reason the two of you are here in the quarterfinals, after all.
“I am, however, a man of ambition. One that seeks acknowledgement not just from one, single person, but from the entire viewing world.
“And for a competitor like me, it’s a journey that could hardly be considered ‘hallmark’. If anything, it’s a constant uphill battle. All because I refuse to compromise my principles and become a whore for attention, like so many others.
He reprehensibly shakes his head.
“So the only real choice I have, Hall, is to just keep on winning. Until the world has no choice but to see who I am… and what I’m doing.”
He comes out of his seat and raises his glass to us.
“So, here’s to your next ruinous outing in the Almasy, Vickie…”
…what? Who did you think he was talking to?
“I wish I could say I’m going to regret what I’m about to do to your boy toy, but… it’s clear to me now that my business is more about breaking hearts, rather than fulfilling them.”
He finishes the drink and makes his leave.
The rumble of thunder follows him out the door.