THE EROS BAR by Tomas Marcantonio
‘Welcome to the Eros Bar, inmate 7436.’
Holding the door open is a woman of about thirty, her skin peach coloured and her blonde hair tied back in a neat ponytail. She wears a white shirt with a black waistcoat and black trousers. Her blue eyes find Hana’s face framed in the doorway, but Hana recognises the empty glare in them immediately. A Dream can pass for a human in the dark, but the technicians still haven’t mastered the complexity and depth of the human eye. One glance is enough to remind you that you’re looking at a mannequin with wires tied up between their ears.
The room is small and dark, the bar lined with oak and smelling of leather. Dozens of bottles are lined up behind the bar: port, whisky, beer, wine, rum; Hana can barely remember the taste of any of them.
‘The gentleman is already waiting in the next room,’ the Dream says, directing a hand towards the second door. ‘If you wish to select your preferred atmosphere.’
Hana looks around at the room. ‘Something like this,’ she says, indicating the bar they’re standing in. ‘Some place with jazz.’
The Dream bows and moves behind the bar. She enters a code on the grey screen next to the shelf of bottles. Hana watches her perfect fingers at work, compares them with her own. She observes the blue-ice hue of her knuckles in the artificial light; her veins, green with purple tributaries, crawling over her thin metacarpals like trails of rain spreading down a window pane. Hands older than her thirty six years, she thinks, and not hands to fall in love with.
‘Your room is now ready. On your last reward evening you selected soju as your beverage of the evening. Would you like the same again?’
‘Soju will be fine.’
Another bow. ‘Please have a seat and I’ll bring your refreshments through shortly.’
Hana pushes through the oak door and it closes behind her, leaving her in semi-darkness. The room is small, about six foot by six, empty apart from a wooden chair in front of her and a half-moon table that disappears into the wall. Suddenly the walls, ceiling and floor flash into life. The room is long now with high ceilings, illuminated by golden lamps that hang like glass tulips around the maroon walls. A dozen or so tables surround her own, most of them occupied by young couples, some by larger groups of smiling teens in open collar shirts and summer dresses. There’s a bar at the far side, penguin-suited staff behind it, and a tessellation of vinyl sleeves above the bottle shelves. Take Five by Dave Brubeck is playing behind the background chatter.
Hana takes her seat, looks across the table at the empty chair in front of her. She reaches out and touches the screen; she can almost feel the pixels. Then the door to her right opens and the Dream enters with a black tray with a green bottle and a shot glass upon it. She places the bottle on the table in front of Hana and then the shot glass.
‘May I pour for you?’
Hana shakes her head and waves her hand. ‘That’s fine.’
The Dream bows. ‘I’ll activate the timer as soon as I leave the room,’ she says, and then exits. Hana watches the door as it closes; it disappears back into the wall, the jazz bar once again whole.
‘Hi,’ comes a man’s voice from across the table. There’s still no one in front of her, just the image of an empty chair.
Hana doesn’t answer right away. She takes a breath and unscrews the cap of the soju bottle. She pours a half shot into the clear glass and replaces the bottle on the table. Holding the rim of the glass to her upper lip, she lets the scent of the alcohol into her nostrils.
‘You forget how much it smells like nail varnish remover,’ she says to the wall.
The empty chair on the other side of the screen laughs. ‘I knew you’d be drinking soju, too.’ His voice is smoky, hoarse, like he might be old enough to remember the taste of cigarettes. ‘All the expensive drinks they have, and this is what we choose.’
Hana throws the liquid into her mouth, feels it burn through her throat.
‘Where are you?’ she asks.
‘On a beach. Thailand, 2023.’
Hana smiles. ‘Cute.’
Silence between them. Hana fills her glass again, this time to the brim. She thinks about saying something and then stops. Instead she throws the soju down her throat in one go. The burn is stronger this time but the kick feels good. She looks at the empty chair across from her. Thailand, honestly. She knows already he’s not her type. Still, at least he’s Korean. There wasn’t always a Korean on the waiting list for rewards.
‘So tell me about it,’ she says. ‘What’s happening?’ Now that she’s here she might as well make an effort. Another twelve months of good behaviour, hundreds of hours cycling the generators just for this night.
‘There are plastic tables and chairs on the sand.’
‘Fire dancers outside one of the beach bars. Teenagers with body paint, sitting in groups with beach buckets full of Sangsom whisky and colourful straws. The ocean’s behind me, lights across the water are glistening. Did you ever go?’
‘Didn’t have chance,’ Hana answers. ‘I was nineteen when they brought me here.’
She slugs another shot and she hears the man on the other side of the wall smack his lips after doing the same.
‘I can still remember the sound of the wash of the tide,’ he says. ‘The smell of the paraffin from the fire dancers. The crunch of the sand between my teeth as I sucked the whisky up through my straw.’ He laughs quietly. ‘No matter what you did, that damn sand always found its way in there.’
‘I never liked the idea of it,’ Hana says. ‘All those kids drinking on beaches, throwing their empty bottles into the ocean, making a mess of the place.’
A moment of silence.
‘I didn’t throw anything into the ocean,’ the man says.
Hana rolls her eyes. She looks around at the faces of the young men in the bar; she tries to find one that matches the voice opposite her but they all look too young. It doesn’t matter anyway.
‘Did I offend you?’ she says. Another shot.
‘No,’ the man answers. ‘It’s okay, forget it. I suppose there were a lot of stupid kids there in those days.’
The soju’s starting to hit already. Hana can feel it when her eyes move around the bar; her vision lags, like the slow tail of a comet. All of Me by Billie Holiday is playing, and Hana closes her eyes to absorb it.
‘I went there with my girlfriend,’ the man goes on. ‘She died a month after we got back to Korea.’
Hana blinks slow. Sure; everyone here has a story. She keeps her eyes closed and tries to remember a time when she wasn’t numb to emotion; when she didn’t feel as plastic as the Dreams who guarded her.
She tilts her head to one side, waiting for the answer.
‘Sometimes people die,’ the man says.
‘Yeah. They sure do.’
Hana pours herself another shot of soju, finishing the bottle. She’s making good time.
She presses the button on the table and the Dream re-enters with a second bottle and a breathalyser on the tray.
‘It’s policy to provide you with an intoxication check,’ the Dream says, ‘to ensure you-’
‘Do it then,’ Hana says.
She picks up the breathalyser from the Dream’s tray and holds it to her lips. Blows hard for five seconds and hands it back.
‘You’re blowing a four point eight. Based on your constitution you can expect a mild hangover if you were to stop drinking now. Would you prefer a non-alcoholic beverage for your second drink?’
Four point eight after one bottle; every time Hana comes her tolerance weakens.
‘No, give me the real stuff,’ she says. Tomorrow doesn’t mean much anymore.
The Dream bows and leaves the second bottle of soju unopened on the table. Hana opens it, pours a shot and finishes it quickly. She turns circles with her empty glass.
‘How long have you been in for?’ the man asks.
‘Seventeen years,’ Hana says. ‘Five to go. You?’
‘How’s everything on the men’s side? You see anything of the escape attempt?’
The man laughs quietly. ‘Hardly an attempt. Just a couple of fools. Smashed a Dream to pieces and tried to commandeer an escape pod. Of course, they couldn’t operate the thing once they got inside. Got locked up straight away, been in solitary ever since. That’s the best attempt anyone’s mustered in thirty years.’
Hana smiles. ‘Worth a try, I suppose.’
‘What are you in for anyway?’
Hana sighs, pours out. She’s starting to feel a slight dizziness.
‘You can see it if you want.’
Hana rings the bell and fishes out her memory stick for the Dream who comes to serve her.
‘Number twenty-six,’ she says, and the Dream nods and exits the room.
A moment later the illusion of the bar disappears and the walls, ceiling and floor turn black. The wall to the left is opaque; Hana sees the outside world through the misty nothingness of it. Stars are out. She stands and places a hand on the wall. Looking down she sees the earth, scrolling past slowly; the lights of a city hundreds of feet below. She wonders what country they’re flying over; the last she heard they were somewhere over Russia.
‘I remember the first time I saw the ship myself,’ she says, hand still on the wall. ‘I was just a kid. The shadow came over the beach at Busan like a storm cloud and everyone looked up to the sky and fell quiet. I remember asking my mum what it was.’
‘And what did she tell you?’
‘She said it was a deterrent. A reminder. I didn’t understand what she meant until a few years later.’
The walls flash into life again before Hana can make out any landmarks below. They light up, pixelated for a moment, loading, before sharpening into complete clarity. Hana sits back down on her chair.
‘Where are we?’ the man asks.
Hana looks around. Alleyways spread deep into the night. Neon glaring from upper-floor signs in the distance, but here is only darkness and smoke. There’s a motorbike leaning up against a lamppost, a girl sitting on it wearing short leather pants and a white t-shirt. Her hair’s tied back into a messy bun and a cigarette hangs from her teeth. A cloud of smoke passes across her face.
‘That’s me,’ Hana says. ‘Nineteen years old, but I thought I was older than that.’ She smiles at the cool way her younger self smokes, even though no one was there to see. ‘Busan. Friday night in the backstreets of Seomyeon. Hell, that place was alive. Friday nights in summer, I thought it was the whole world. I wonder what it’s like now.’
‘No cigarettes for a start,’ the man says.
Hana watches her teenage self and closes her eyes as she takes her latest shot. It burns in her throat, and the smells of old Busan summers flood back to her. Pork belly burning through the neon backstreets, kimchi and cow intestines wrapped up in perilla leaf bundles, makgeoli spilled over crowded tables. It seems like another lifetime.
‘Back then I thought it was cool to get drunk and cruise the arteries of Seomyeon on that bike of mine,’ she says, opening her eyes. ‘It was like an extension of my soul, that bike, tight between my thighs, purring into the night.’
A couple enter the alley from the far side. The nineteen year-old Hana lifts her head slowly, watches them approach.
‘And who do we have here?’ the man asks.
‘The victims,’ Hana answers.
They watch in silence. The argument starts out small; a couple of snide comments, an exchange of insults.
‘What’s it all about?’ the man asks.
‘That girl,’ Hana says. ‘Slept with my ex. He told me so himself before I kicked him out, but she never admitted it. And her boyfriend believed her, of course.’
The girl kicks Hana’s bike, and Hana flicks her cigarette butt at the girl’s face. That’s when the boyfriend intervenes. Pushes Hana in the shoulder with his right fist so that she almost falls off her bike and into the wall. Then Hana pulls something out of her boot.
‘I thought it would make me look hard,’ Hana says, watching her younger self. ‘That was the first night I’d put a knife to my ankle; I guess that’s why I went to it so quickly. I was so conscious of it being there; I never thought I’d actually use it.’
The three figures scuffle in the dark. Hands grasping hands, bodies pinning each other to the floor, flashes of silver in Hana’s hand as it catches the light. Then there’s a scream that pierces through the whole room.
‘All over a teenage argument,’ Hana says, closing her eyes again. ‘Something so small. So stupid.’
The girl drops limply to the floor and her boyfriend, grimacing, falls backwards. Hana mounts her bike and rides off into the alleys, into darkness.
‘Drones caught the whole thing on video, of course,’ Hana says, pouring herself another. ‘I barely made it ten minutes before they caught up with me. Take me back to the jazz bar,’ she calls through the door.
The screens around her flash and in a moment Hana is back in the red leather bar with the sound of Frank Sinatra.
‘She died?’ the man asks.
‘She died. And they said he’d never be able to walk again.’
‘You still think about it?’
‘Every day. Every hour, probably.’
‘Because you’re in here,’ the man says. ‘Because you threw your life away because of one moment of stupidity.’
‘No,’ Hana says, licking her lips. ‘Because I killed someone. And because I ruined another person’s life.’ Another shot.
They drink in silence again.
‘Where are you now?’ Hana asks. ‘Back on your perfect Thai beach?’
‘No, I’m with you. In the jazz bar.’
Hana nods to herself. ‘We’re running out of time,’ she says. ‘We’ll have to make our decision soon. If you haven’t made yours already. Do you want to see my face?’
A pause while he takes a drink.
‘Yes. Yes, I do.’
Hana reaches out in front of her and knocks three times on the wall. She hears the man do the same on the other side. The screen between them slides up slowly, and then she sees him.
He looks younger than his voice. Probably around her own age. Short hair, shaved close at the sides. Soft, dark eyes, premature wrinkles on his forehead. His shoulders are stooped forwards, his arms crossed over the table.
Neither one says anything when their eyes meet. Both reach for their bottles and pour fresh glasses. Then they slide their glasses forward and touch them together.
‘What’s your name?’ Hana asks.
‘Everyone calls me Soo.’
‘Hana Jang. You’re better looking than your voice, Soo,’ Hana says.
‘Women always say that after two bottles of soju,’ Soo says, and Hana smiles at the corners. ‘You look much the same as you did back then.’
Hana rolls her eyes. ‘This isn’t a real date, you don’t have to flatter me. We’re only here because the fools down there would rather date video game characters and Dreams than real people.’
‘Right,’ he says, looking down at his hands with a smile. Hana watches him play with his glass.
‘Can I ask you something?’ Soo says.
‘What do you think you’d be like if it never happened? I mean,’ he says, fingering his bottle, ‘the way you talk and everything. I don’t know. Do you think you’d be the same?’
Hana looks down at her hands again. Old hands. ‘Seventeen years does a lot to a person,’ she says.
Soo nods slowly, his brow furrowed. Hana looks at him curiously.
‘You’re not like the other men in here,’ she says.
Soo looks up at her, smiles. It’s slow, laboured.
‘You didn’t tell me what you were in for.’
‘No,’ Soo says. ‘I didn’t.’
The walls around them flash back to black. Hana can only see the whites of his eyes now, the soft outline of his face in the new gloom.
‘Time’s up,’ she says. ‘So tell me, Soo. Do you want to make a night of it? Do our bit for the dwindling population of fools down there? Maybe cut a few years off our sentences?’ A pause. ‘Don’t feel like you have to.’
Soo observes her in silence for a moment.
‘Let’s do it,’ he says.
Hana stands up, her bottles and glasses empty on the table. The Dream escorts her outside into a new, dimly-lit corridor. Hana can just about walk in a straight line. They come to a door at the end.
‘I hope you enjoy the rest of your evening.’
Hana nods and pushes the door open. She looks around; the Dream must have made a mistake, shown her to the wrong door. Hana’s done this enough times to know how it works: one small bedroom, one double bed, one shower and bathroom, one night. But here is only a pod with a window to the night sky. It’s been seventeen years since she was brought to the ship in one, but the design has hardly changed at all. The door closes behind her and locks. The Dream on the other side doesn’t answer her calls or beating fists on the door.
Hana waits for minutes and nothing happens. Then the door opens, and a man in a wheelchair enters. It takes Hana a moment to recognise him.
‘Sorry to keep you waiting,’ Soo says. ‘There was a lot of paperwork for me to fill out. Are you ready?’
‘Ready for what?’
‘To go back.’
Hana looks at him, at his neutral expression, his hands on the wheels of his chair.
‘You’re him,’ she says. ‘The boyfriend.’
Soo’s expression doesn’t change. She sees it now in his face, the young man from that night all those years ago.
‘Good behaviour,’ he says. ‘You were due for an assessment to see if you were truly ready to return.’
Hana watches him, uncomprehending.
‘You’re not an inmate?’
Soo shakes his head.
‘They wanted me to make the final call, decide if you were remorseful for what you did. To see if I could forgive you.’
Words catch in Hana’s throat; her eyes sting. How many nights she’s thought about what she would say if she ever met the man whose life she ruined.
‘I’m so sorr-’
‘You don’t have to say it now,’ Soo says. ‘It’s done, and we can’t change anything that happened.’
‘I don’t deserve anyone’s forgiveness. I’m not asking for it.’
‘I forgave you a long time ago,’ Soo says. He looks down at his chair, then back at Hana. ‘If I didn’t I would have given up a long time ago. Hatred, resentment,’ he says, shaking his head, ‘they do to a heart what plaque does to unbrushed teeth. Allow it to build up, fester, and you’ll be buried deep beneath it, unable to breathe. My heart was buried for a long time, believe me. But not anymore.’
Soo wheels himself into the capsule. Hana stands watching him.
‘The world’s waiting. Are you ready to go back?’
Hana looks out the window. They’re passing over a city; she can make out a bridge glowing purple and red over the water; it looks like Busan. She looks back to Soo. It’s been seventeen years; too long for a heart to be buried, numbed by guilt. Time to set it free.
‘Yes. I’m ready.’