[Chapter 1 - Smiles]

We just got home from out ridiculous night out and I was tired, drunk and my entire body ached. I heard Thom and his girlfriend of almost a year laughing between kisses in the only other room of the apartment. Sleep conquered shortly after I turned on my time-to-crash music.

* * *

The next morning, Thom woke me by tossing my keys in my crotch and drawing open the blinds.

"I’m heading out now, kid. Don’t forget to go to work", he instructed condescendingly. Somehow, through my groans, he deciphered that I wanted him to switch the perculator on.

My mouth tasted terrible so I knew I’d have to pull myself out of bed so I could get breakfast out of the way and brush my teeth. And pull was exactly what I resorted to. Step by step I coached my muscles to carry my naked self to my modest, but large, kitchen. I blindly reached and turned on the radio above the sink while pouring milk into my mixture of sweetened cereal and sliced banana.

Once finished, I strode off to the bathroom to pee. I peeked over at the medicine cabinet mirror and saw the huge bruise forming by my left temple and gash on my chin; a right hook and a hard fall, I guessed. For the first time that morning I checked my watch (primarily to make sure I wasn’t robbed of it) and discovered I still had lots of time. I also realized I could not stand my hair so, without giving it a second thought, I grabbed the clippers and went at it, shaving off my brownish black locks at a quarter-inch length.

"Fuck it", I thought aloud.

I couldn’t be bothered to trim my neck.

I decided not to shave, either, for fear of excessive bleeding on my chin, and stepped directly into the shower, swinging its glass door harder than probably necessary. The soap stung the cuts on my knuckles and it took a while to shampoo and rinse out all the short, prickley hairs, but 10 minutes later I was dried off and slipping on my lilac-purple shirt and black suit. I skipped the tie since I’m worthless at matching.

As usual, I forgot to brush my teeth before getting dressed and carefully did so after. I raised my eyebrows astonished and voiced a short "Hmm" when I didn’t see any traces of blood in my spit, and odd but assuring sight considering I still had little recollection of what Thom and I had gotten ourselves into. As best friends I knew that whatever we’d done we did as a team. Previous antics had taught me that.

The coffee had finished brewing and I filled my Thermos to the brim, gulped down the cup I forgot to drink at breakfast and set all my dishes to soak. Procrastination is the real secret to success.

Since I never bring my work home I never unpack it, hence never having to re-pack it; my bag waited by the front door where I’d left it. I wrestled my feet onto the low white leather and gum-soled Converse Varvatos that Thom had gotten shipped for me last week, making sure to step the heels down thuroughly since my hands were busy waiting idly in my pocket and refused to assist. I then locked up and snatched today’s newspaper that stuck up through the mail slot.

Leaving the gate I was surprised I wasn’t hungover at all. I was expecting the morning light to give me a headache as it came down over the four story building across the street, but it only caused me to squint a little. In my pocket I found a single Lucky Strike and my book of matches in addition to more loose change that I’d have preferred. The coins had bent the cigarette slightly out of shape but it was still smokable. I lit it up. As I passed the tobacco kiosk I was tempted to buy more, but knew I wouldn’t have time to smoke them at work anyway.

I finished the cigarette on the platform at the trainstation (it’s a conveniently short walk from home). The nicotine made my entire body tingle. I eventually shuddered it off and smiled at how bad the kick struck me even just a few hours since I had last smoked.

At 7:10 I got on the train and grabbed a window seat and set my bag next to me. The trip into the city takes about 35 minutes and I’m never able to fall asleep in that short a time. I retrieved my Minidisk player and popped its Bang & Olufsen earbuds into my ears. It took a minute of shuffling through cassettes before I found what I was looking for – a mix with 80’s artists and their melancolic songs. Tears For Fears kicked off my commute.

I quickly paged through the newpaper but didn’t find anything that caught my eye so I stuffed it back down and poured some coffee into the cap of my Thermos instead. An older man came and sat across from me and politely asked if I minded sharing some of my hot beverage. I explained that it was just plain coffee and that I was happy to pour him a cup. He had assumed it was coffee but, in his old age, suffered a permanant loss of smell due to a minor cold. Old farts like he were vulnerable to all kinds of silly things, he joked. His mood was contageous and soon I too was equally good-spirited.

There was no doubt that he was well into his eighties, and he was clearly a happy man, but he had a sadness in his eyes telling that his spouse clearly hadn’t lived as long as he.

Trying to lighten the mood a bit, I commented that, spite having any clue of his age, he looked incredibly fit. It was true, too. (I hope I’m in as good a health when I’m his age.) He told me he had his bike along with him and had planned to bike around the city until lunch. The train was already approaching the central station and finally rolled to a stop. He rolled and expensive touring bike alongside him and even carried it down the long stairs on his shoulder with a backpack on the other. We arrived down at the already busy street and said our fairwells. It didn’t take long to lose sight of him among the hundreds of people on their way to work.
It’s almost taboo not to carry some coffee chain’s disposable cup around, so I stopped by one a block down for some commercial coffee. The girl at the register caught me off guard when she asked for my order. I was deep in concentration trying to decide whether to buy a tall cafĂ© au lait or a regular Fairtrade espresso. She was stunningly beautiful, and her voice was prettier still. I ordered the expresso and paid her, marginally embarrassed at having to use so many coins. When I left and pushed the door open, I accidentally tried to part my hair to the side but was quickly reminded that I had none as soon as my fingers touched my bare forehead. Time to trudge on to work.
* * *
I didn't get much work done that morning. Then again, there isn't always a lot to do. I work at a design firm that other companies hire to design products and assist with marketing. We cover everything from graphics and logos to toasters. (The toaster is still a favorite project around here.)
When I started working here I hadn't planned on staying the two years it's become. I applied for an internship here when Genesis Industrial Design had just started up. Spite being a bright kid, the grades I graduated with would hardly get me into a design school. Expecting secretary and filing duty, I was surprised when they put me in "the Shit" and had me designing right from the start.
"Ben. It's ten o'clock." My boss stepped into my work area and peered over my shoulder; I was knee-deep in Minesweeper. "You might as well stop for lunch now or you'll fall asleep here."

"I don't doubt that, Larry. Thanks", I said, tiredly.

"By the way: You and Thom were crazy last night." Our evening apparently left him with some fond memories. Larry is the founder of Genesis. He's a good guy. He just needs to grow up.

"I'll take your word for it. Who'd we fight with this time?"

"It was retarded! Everone had a good laugh, though. I'll tell you when you get back."

I packed up and took the three flights of stairs down to the building's main lobby but bounded right back up them to get my umbrella when I saw people entering soaked from the rain. I also grabbed my wallet before making a second attempt to leave.

I decided to go back to the coffee shop I went to this morning. Usually I eat at one of the city's more formal restaurants, but thought it would get boring sitting there alone since my colleagues were still working.

The same girl was still working the cash register.

"Back so soon?" she flirted. I could have flirted back - it was really tempting - but I was preoccupied trying to recall even the vaguest fraction of a memory from last night.

"Hi." My reply was dry and she clearly felt shot down. I tried to save face and continue with a smile. "Could I get two bulgur & chicken salads with dressings on the side?"

I felt like such an asshole.

"Sorry. We don't start serving lunch 'till eleven." She silently agreed I was an asshole.

"Well, could I order another espresso or two until then?"

"Sure." She turned to fill the paper cup and quickly covered it with a plastic lid. When she turned back around I knew I had to apologize.

"Look. I'm sorry for coming off as and asshat, since I think you were trying to flirt with me." The words almost fell off my tongue faster that I could move my lips. I took a deep breath and collected myself before going on.
"My thoughts are kind of elsewhere right now. I went out last night and really wish I could remember what gave me my battle scars."

Her expression wasn't happy, but at least she wasn't pissed.

"I accept your apology. If you can wait twenty minutes and let me buy your drink I'll keep you company", she whispered back.

This hadn't originally been my plan for my lunch break. In fact, I still had an important errand I needed to run.

I surrendered, taking her offer, and took my coffee to a hight table with two seats looking out the window.

The twenty minutes ultimately became a half-hour, but I kept my self entertained with people-watching. My company came carrying two small coffees, setting one next to a full, cold cup which I, for the second time today, neglected to drink in time.

"So," she began, "what don't you remember?"

"I remember leaving and I remember coming home." It sounded more severe than it was.

"You don't look like a fighter or a drunk", she said with one eyebrow raised.

"Thank you, I think." I was beginning to wonder what kind of first impression she was getting of me. "Both are more recreational than addiction. We drink more than we should and then put our noses where they don't belong."

"Shit. You're in a gang?"

"What? No. It's just Thom and I." She clearly wasn't getting it yet, but it wasn't an easy subject to explain.

"With friends like Thom, who needs enemies?" she quipped. I looked up to see whether or not she was joking. "I was joking. Don't worry. I'm not judging you."

"Thanks. No, Thom became my first new friend when I moved here. We started a fight our first weekend out together. We left the bar and some kid was getting his ass handed to him right outside. The two guys pummeling him were built like tanks, but we were drunk and full of confidence." I paused and laughed with her before resuming.

"Anyway. Thom went at them balls-out. Most of his punches missed, but he kept them coming fast enough that the other two barely had time to catch their breath, let alone fight back. I helped the younger guy up to his feet so he could watch the rest of the fight as the spectator."

"So you never actually fought in your first fight? Oh, the irony", she mused.
"Thom had it covered. I've learned I'll live longer if I keep a safe distance from his fists."

It got quiet for a while as I let her look me over curiously.

"I'm judging you now", she finally said.

"I know. I still don't know your name", I replied. It was bugging me.

"I know. It's Anna." She was having too much fun watching me squirm.

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