The Underground (part one)

It’s one thing to hate insomnia, and another thing to have to live it. John had moved past hating and on to accepting it as a normal part of his life. Rather than dreading going to bed, he simply incorporated the extra hours into his daily routine. Sleep came when it did, and when it didn’t, he would walk around the city. It was a chance to see faces of the world he would otherwise remain ignorant of.

Tonight was no different. His wandering brought him to a club below street level. The Underground. Perhaps a bit too literal. But it was something new. John’s beard and rough skin clearly put him in his late twenties heading towards forty, but the doorman checked his ID anyway. In fact, he spent more time on it than seemed reasonable. Eventually, he handed it back.

“Haven’t seen you before.” His voice was deep and gravelly, but not threatening.

“Nope,” John agreed. “First time here.”

The doorman kept eyeing him. “You sure you want to go in?”

“Why wouldn’t I?”

The doorman shrugged as though the reason were obvious. “Go ahead. Enjoy your night.”

John wasn’t sure what to make of the man’s comments, but he wouldn’t let it him stop him. If anything, it made him determined to check the place out. He walked through the door, making sure it closed behind him to cut off the doorman’s gaze.

Inside, the place was dark and crowded. In spite of the number of people, it was surprisingly quiet. Music – he guessed dance music from the late 80s – played over the sound system, but even it was not overly loud.

He found an open stool at the bar, and sat down. After catching the bartender’s eye, he ordered a beer and looked around the room.  Almost immediately, he noticed a woman down the bar looking directly at him.  There was no smile, just a look of mild curiosity.  Long, straight, dark hair.  Loose fitting white shirt.  Jeans.  Attractive, but not making any attempt to draw attention to herself. He tried to ignore her staring and continue his survey of the other customers.

It really was an odd place. It looked like it was meant to be a nightclub, but everyone acted like it was a small, unknown hole in the wall. A place you’d go to for a secret rendezvous. With so many people, however, it could hardly be that.

“I haven’t seen you before.”

The woman was next to him. She must have asked the person who had been sitting there to move.

“You’re the second person to tell me that.” He tried to act nonplussed by her continued interest.

“Well, it’s true.”

“I suppose it is.” So far, this was the only thing that made him uncomfortable. Maybe the doorman was warning him about her.

“My name is Cailín.”

“Hi, I’m John.” Whatever was making him feel uncertain, he didn’t want to be rude.

“John. That’s a nice name.”

“Nothing fancy. Your name is intriguing, however.”

She laughed. It was a kind sound, but he didn’t understand what had prompted it. “I say something funny?”

“No. Or at least, I know you didn’t mean to. My dad gave me the name. He didn’t have much of an imagination. It means ‘girl.'”

“Oh. Yeah. I guess I can see why that would be funny. Still ‘Cailín’ sounds better than ‘girl.'”

“I guess so. I hadn’t thought of it that way.”

His early unease dissipated, he found her pleasant company. “So what’s so special about this place? The doorman seemed to want me to stay away.”

“Him? He just likes to be picky about who comes here. Probably likes the power too much. As for The Underground, it’s just somewhere people can get away from everything. Here, your other life doesn’t matter. Nobody here knows what you do, or what responsibilities you have. None of that belongs here.”

“Sounds nice.” And it did. A place to escape. “But there are lots of places you can do that, aren’t there?”

She laughed again. Still friendly. “Perhaps, but I don’t own those other places.”

“I didn’t realize . . .”

“Why should you? You haven’t been here before.”

“I guess I wouldn’t expect the owner to just be sitting at the bar like any other customer.”

“Ah. Well, I created a place I would want to go. No sense sitting in an office when this is where I would want to be. Besides, it runs itself. Not much for me to do.”

“I see.”

“No, you don’t. Not yet. But I understand your confusion. For now, just enjoy yourself. That’s what this is here for.”

“Alright.” John expected her to leave, now that she had introduced herself, but she stayed next to him. Her presence refused to be ignored, and he couldn’t stop paying attention to her.

A new song started, and Cailín suddenly grabbed his hand. “Dance with me.”

Maybe it had been a request, but he found himself dragged halfway to the dance floor before he even fully understood what was happening. He decided he didn’t mind and followed her lead. No one else was dancing, but she obviously didn’t care. She leaned against him, only a little shorter than he was. Even while he wasn’t sure how to take all of this, she betrayed no awkwardness. She seemed to be in this moment with no thought beyond it. He found himself feeling envious of her ability to relax into now.

As the song came to an end, she took a step back and looked into his eyes. “Thank you.” Kissing him lightly on the cheek, she turned and walked back to the bar.

*     *     *

John didn’t remember how he got home when he awoke the next day. Light streamed into his window, the sun already high in the morning sky. It was after eleven. Grateful once again that his boss was understanding, he quickly got dressed and caught a bus downtown to his office.

From the building, a number of people were streaming out to grab lunch. It was a typical sight for John. What was new was seeing Cailín walking out of the building, too.

Without hesitating, he walked up to her. “Hi, Cailín. Why are you down here?”

Her expression held only confusion. “I’m sorry? Have we met?”

Now it was his turn not to understand. “It’s me, John. We met last night at The Underground.”

“I’m sorry. I’ve never heard of The Underground, and we have never met.”

“But . . .”

“And my name is not Cailín, it’s Colleen. Now please leave me alone, or I will call the police.”

Nothing about her body language suggested she was joking. She genuinely did not know who he is. Maybe she really wasn’t Cailín. But he was so sure.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bother you. Please excuse me.” He walked quickly into the building and took the elevator to his office.

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