Summary: An enigmatic bartender, a down-on-his-luck salary man and a tale of a lost Johnny.
Fandom: Johnny's Entertainment
Original story: Lemon Slices, by littlealex
Betas: thanks to ungalad, mrsatterthwaite and saturn_necklace for their help.
‘You know, I am a bartender after all.’
The salary man took his eyes off his glass for a second –it wasn’t going anywhere- and stared at the smiling bartender.
‘So you can, you know, tell me your problems. That’s why bartenders are in the world.’
The salary man snorted and went back to the very interesting bottom of his glass.
‘My problems are none of your business. Besides, it’ll be useless.’
‘What? Don’t you watch movies? Talking to bartenders is better and cheaper than therapists, you know? We are the makers of epiphanies! The keepers of secrets!’
‘Do you have a martyr complex?’
‘A death wish?’
The bartender shrugged. Maybe working in such a seedy bar did show his suicidal tendencies, but his cheery attitude wasn’t fake. He loved his work and all the quirky types he ended up meeting.
‘No, not particularly.’
‘Then why are you pestering me?’
‘Because you’ve been drooling on my counter for five hours and we should’ve closed already. That usually means that you want to talk, you know?’
In order to drive his point home, he wiped the counter for the thirteenth time in the last fifteen minutes.
‘Ha. How do you know that, oh so wise bartender?’
‘Fifteen years of dealing with drunken businessmen, obviously. There’s nothing I haven’t seen or heard.’
‘You think?’ the drunk pointed a trembling finger at the bartender and said, ’I could tell you a story that… that… like you’ve never heard before.’
‘I doubt it.’ answered the bartender, losing none of his cold liveliness.
‘Seriously! My problems. Oh, my problems. The world hates me. The whole world hates me and I’m a useless old guy who’d be better off dead.’
‘Then tell me.’
‘It’s none of your business.’
‘Then the story wasn’t that good.’
‘It is, but I’m not talking. Talking is for the weak.’
‘What if we make a deal?’
The client’s eyes sparkled.
‘A game, if you want.’
‘Hm. Sounds good. I really like games.’
Patrons held no secrets for an experienced bartender and gamblers held secrets for nobody at all.
‘I’ll tell you a story and if yours is worse, then you’ll drink for free for a week. Deal?’
The bartender cleared his throat and filled the customer’s glass before finally starting. He spoke loud, even if the establishment was lonely and empty.
‘Well, once upon a time, on a night not unlike this one, a man stopped by this bar. Dishevelled, a broken umbrella, completely soaked and already drunk. You should have seen him! He looked nothing like he looks on TV, you know? All skinny and sad and tired. He looked really tired.’
‘Oh, he was one of these… Johnnys. The idols. I can’t tell you which one, obviously.’
‘Don’t know much about them, really.’
‘Good. So he sits down and asks for a drink. One glass of vodka and some lemon slices. He then started to do the oddest thing. He’d pick out all the seeds of the lemon slice before drinking. I was younger back then and a little insensitive, you know? Due to inexperience and all. So I stared at him while he did it. He noticed, smiled and said:
I picked up the habit from a… friend. Yeah, a friend…
He fell silent then, until something kicked in and he started to act in a extremely stiffly joyful way.
So, bartender, give me another glass! I want to see this room spinning in no time! Good old nice booze, friend to all the desperate people of the world.
He had a very fake smile on, you know? I noticed he kept glancing at his cell, all the time, so I kindly asked him if he was waiting for a call.
I’m waiting for a call, yes. But I’m hoping they won’t call… Or maybe it’d be better if he did, just to end this whole farce.
Inexperienced and all, I always had a talent for listening. People just want to talk to me, you know?'
The salary man snorted once more (and he’d snort a few times more before the story ended).
'Sure they do. That’s why I’m doing all the talking.'
'Don’t interrupt. Let me continue my story. It’s a really interesting one, I promise.
So he starts to laugh, really bitterly. Made me kinda uncomfortable, in a way. I’m such a happy person that that kind of laugh really unsettles me and back then it was even worse. Now I’m used to it.
And then, before you know it, he starts pouring his heart out, all over my counter.'
'What? He vomited?'
The bartender rolled his eyes.
'No, he talked about… his life. You’d think an idol would be happy, but this guy hated his life. He didn’t speak until everyone had left the bar…
What’d we do without with alcohol? You wouldn’t have a job and I… I’d have probably killed myself before I turned sixteen.
I didn’t talk. I’m extremely sensitive, as I told you.
He went on.
But maybe drinking is killing myself too, I don’t know. I’m just bitter tonight… Hey, more vodka. Oh, and give me some lemon slices too. Thanks, very much appreciated.
This thing brings so many memories.
He showed me his glass and shook it. It was a shame it didn’t have ice in it, because that’d have been prettier.
I got my first confession due to this. But maybe I shouldn’t have. Shouldn’t have even gone there in the first place. It was a fork in my path, that one decisive moment in a very decisive time.
But I was young and foolish. Idiotic and lacking the precious gift of hindsight. I should’ve known life would fuck me over again. I’m life’s boytoy and it sucks, you know? It fucking sucks. I pride myself in being strong but hell, everybody has a limit.
So I didn’t get to debut and never will. Tough luck. I made my own way, no hand-outs, no crazy promotions, nobody to rely on. Did I care? No, I didn’t, I just went on like nothing had happened, like I didn’t feel anything. I just acted as though I never feel this horrible nausea… I see them, even now, and still feel like something’s clawing inside my throat, sometimes.
They got it easy. I mean, we’re still friends and I know it wasn’t their fault. Somebody got to do the picking and that somebody probably hates me, because twice? Leaving me behind twice? That’s the work of an evil genius. I don’t want to brag but I was popular and I am as talented as any of them. And talent is not that common in the company. It’s as scarce as rain in the Sahara. It shouldn’t be wasted.
So the first time. I can maybe get it. Inexperience, puberty still too close, whatever. But fuck. They left me behind and they even told me they didn’t want to leave me behind but… now they’re the group famed for their closeness. I know I could’ve been there, I could’ve been one of them.
But now there’s no place for me. I used to see a me-shaped outline in that group, funny as it sounds, but now I know they’ve carved themselves a place and a routine. I’m just left out.
I still remember when they told me. A break, the dressing room and Jun looked so antsy and weird I had to ask what was going on. ‘A temporary unit. Something to do with volleyball.’ Volleyball is the bane of my existence, never mind the short skirts.
Jun and Aiba were excited, but Nino… Nino looked even angry he had been picked. I thought it was stupid back then and I still think so. Meanwhile, I think the floor suddenly gave in and I was left with no footing in a world that was so much different now. I was alone and scared and overreacting.
If you saw them back then, you’d never guess they’d be so close now. Half of them’d have rather been anywhere else in the world but Hawaii but went there anyway. Inertia, I guess. JE works by inertia.
You get used to it. Wake up early, drink a lot, smoke, think about food with fondness and that’s it. It’s hard to break the habit. Maybe I should’ve. Maybe I should’ve left a long time ago, but it’s useless now.'
'Tell me about it! I could tell you a thing or two about…'
'It’s my turn now, so shut up. You’ll get your chance to tell your story, so please.
But maybe the whole world works by inertia. Maybe you and me and that sad-looking salary man are all in the same boat. The boat of the painfully, chronically bored, the ones that will never start a mutiny.
I worked harder and harder after that. Seeing them in TV, the PVs, the singles just made me angrier so I told myself I could top them, I could be even better. When 4TOPS happened… I thought we’d be able to make it together. We were another force of nature, even stronger than a storm. This time around, I’d manage it!
He was slowly drinking himself to numbness, I could tell. He drank and drank and I think talking didn’t help, because it just reminded him of exactly the things he was tying to numb.
It was raining even harder than tonight when I found out about NEWS. Pour me another drink, please.
Pi’s message was so weird that night. Like tonight’s actually. Very short and awkward and Pi’s never awkward. He’s always flawless, the perfect prince that just stepped out of a dream.
He was wearing glasses at night and being so unlike himself! I even thought Jin had died and another equally ridiculous things. That’s still my number one suspicion whenever he’s weird. I just kill a common friend in my imagination and suddenly any other problem that might arise looks silly by comparison. I guess I shouldn’t have overused like I did, because this time it didn’t work. Jin’s death sounds banal compared to what I’m going to have to overcome this time around.
So I’ve arrived at his home and he’s still being an alien in the form of Pi. I acted like a fool the whole time, if I remember correctly.
So we start goofing around and getting drunk. He’s still avoiding the subject and just when I think I’m safe, the bastard confesses and kisses me and I’m like-'
The salary man jolted in his seat, almost like he had woke up.
'Wait. They kissed?!'
'Well, it’s weird.', he said, without meeting the bartender’s eyes.
'Do you have more insightful comments to offer or should I continue with the story?'
'Continue, continue. My daughter’s gonna flip out when she…'
Or doesn’t your daughter want to know what happened afterwards?
I was so… it was so weird! My best friend. Who is not a girl… kissing me.
My best friend. I guess he still is, after all, he still is. But back then, back then it was weird and alluring at the same time. I mean, the kiss was really awkward but it was also the best one I had ever had. It was soft and just a little moist and I’m probably creeping you out, I know. But I can’t believe I won’t kiss him anymore. I guess it can’t be helped. Everything ends and even the prettiest spring will turn into winter with enough time and enough mistakes.
I mean, even back then I knew we’d be in different groups from then on. Different lives. How do you keep a relationship like that alive when…? Fuck me if I know. So many years and I still don’t fucking know.
I guess I can’t blame him if he wants to end it. It’s dangerous but if he was going to chicken out he should’ve warned me. It could ruin our careers, I guess, but it’s not like I have much of a career. It’s not my fault his band mates turned out to be scandalous idiots and that now he’s scared people might find out.
By the way, you’re not supposed to tell anybody about all this. It’s a secret romance! A torrid affair meant to be kept out of the press. That little bit of danger that makes life interesting. Maybe Pi is tired of danger…
I told him that bartenders abide by an unspoken code of confidentiality, as it’s known.'
'You’re telling me the story…'
'It’s not like anybody is going to believe you. A bartender told me! Yeah, like that’s credible.
And now that we’ve established that I’m by no means breaching my profession’s unwritten laws, let us continue.
But if he is, then why does he act so weird around Bakanishi? I don’t to be too wary but they’re together all the time, lately. I think Jin sees more of him than I do. And that’s just wrong.
I should’ve expected it, I know, because that’s how it works for me. I’m going to survive, obviously, but coming out on top for once would be a nice change of pace.
I mean, haven’t you noticed how utterly awesome I am? They must see it because it’s the most obvious thing ever. Ever. Even more than Ninomiya’s evilness or Jun’s less-than-heterosexuality.
I am awesome, so can you tell me why the fuck I’m sitting alone in a bar, totally wasted, probably single and with a dead-end career? Where’s my drama work? My singles? My boyfriend?
I didn’t answer because there were rhetorical questions, you know?’
'Oh, really? I couldn’t tell . I guess it must take a really awesome bartender to do so.'
The bartender pointedly ignored the comments, used as he was to drunken people’s ramblings and random aggression.
'I work hard and I play harder, so he can’t say it’s lack of time or of trying. He’s the ridiculously busy one, not me.
I may not have written love songs (and if I did, I wouldn’t be thinking of him) or send him roses on the anniversary of the first time we had ramen together (I remember the date and all, I just don’t think it’s worth celebrating), but hey, he’s not that good either. He once forgot my birthday and last year we didn’t even spend Christmas together. So he’s an idol. But so am I and I can find time to meet him!
Don’t believe I’m complaining, please. I’m just stating the facts.
And now what’s next? He leaves me for a… for Akanishi? Hell no. I can be a moron sometimes, but he’s a full-time one. Or he just plays the field for a few years until he comes back all contrite? What happens to the friendship? Thankfully we don’t work together now because if we did, I guess I’d end up on a plane to America.
These years were great, you know? We had a lot of fun, even more fun than we had when we were just friends. We can’t lose that, can we?
There was this time we spent the whole of our ‘holidays’ (the first time we had time off at the same time in… months,, I think) just watching old Kimutaku’s stuff. He said he wanted to research and I laughed my head off but damn, they were mighty fine dramas and I learnt something from it. Besides, it meant we spent a lot of time just goofing around. I don’t know, with whom else am I going to do that now? I’ll fall in love again, obviously, but damn, it’s too much work to build that kind of relationship again.
But it was good, it was good. I don’t want to forget it, I want to keep going and I will, but it’d be better if we just got back together.
At this point, I kindly pointed out that his lover had yet to end the relationship.'
'You’re a model of courtesy.'
‘Oh, no, not directly, but I know him. He has his tells and lately he’s all antsy. I can’t even hold a normal conversation with him because he always has to hang up the phone or leave or talk to someone else.
That’s life for you. It’s perfect one day and the next, it’s all gone.
I sound like an old man, probably, but I’ve lived a lot. Oh, I’ve lived a lot. I’m that character that has to lose to make others look good. I will never be a leading man, not even in my own life. Perpetual comic-relief. The Universe just likes to play cosmic jokes at my expense. I guess it’s hilarious.
So today Pi finally has time to meet me and he’s all serious sounding. He sent a message earlier. It’s so… to the point. ‘We need to talk’. That means bad news, doesn’t it? In all languages.'
'He probably had a point there. When my boss said that, I knew…'
'Sir, this story is being told for your benefit, so shut up and listen.
And with a text message! That’s cold and cruel. I deserve better than that. I’ve seen all the signs, but I was still hoping for a happy ending. Some silly misunderstanding, like in the movies. Not just stalling because I'm too afraid to face reality. Or avoiding going back home and waiting for the call that’ll tell me it’s finally over.
Then the cell phone rang. He half-smiled and picked it up. He read the message, put it on the counter and stared at me. He was pale.
Fuck. I… I need to go. How much…?
I told him how much it was. Then, I’m not ashamed to say that, while he fumbled with his wallet – Maths tend to be hard when it’s very late and you’re drunk-, I glanced at the cell phone. It said something along the lines of ‘Can you tell me why you’re missing your birthday party, you idiot?’ and it was from someone named ‘Jun’. The style was a little more abrupt, though.'
'Are you a private investigator? Or just nosy?'
'It’s part of my job!'
'How many times a day do you tell yourself that?'
'He stood up and almost made the stool fall. He was a great tipper, even if I deserved it.
It was weird, the way he laughed randomly. For a second, I was afraid he might have kissed me.
Wow, that shows how much of an idiot I can be sometimes. So goodbye, sir. It was nice to talk to you, thanks for listening.
I nodded and, for the very first time, felt proud of my work.
He left running and even forgot his umbrella. I kept the umbrella, to remind myself of all the times life seems to suck, you know? All very symbolic.'
He made a vague gesture towards the rain or Tokyo or maybe the innumerable wonders of the world.
'You kept it because it was from a Johnny’s. You can’t fool me.'
'Oh, no, I just felt oddly attached to the guy. He had a very appealing quality, like he could be your brother or your son or, you know, just a random salary man.'
The random salary man fell silent for a while, while he drank and pondered. After looking at his watch, he reached for his wallet.
‘I guess my story lacks gay idols and melodramatic rain, so it must mean you win. And I should get going, because my wife is probably still awake and waiting for me.’
The bartender smiled.
‘Your wife didn’t seem to concern you an hour ago.’
The salary man’s interest was suddenly caught by a stool.
‘Yeah, yeah, how much do I owe you?’
‘Oh, don’t worry. You don’t have to pay, you’re my charity project for the day.’
The salary man stared at the middle aged bartender, wondering whether he was human or not.
‘You’re a weird man.’, he finally said, at least sure he was a man.
The bartender laughed mightily.
Just as he was leaving, he said:
‘I know. See you around, sir. I hope life’s tide changes for you.’
The man stood at the door for a moment, looking at the umbrella on his hand. With a frown of confusion and determination, he left it on the counter. He looked straight at the bartender and answered:
‘Don’t we all?’