The door opens automatically, not how supermarket doors part but rather like a hologram dissipating. Inside, the lights are blinding. Ads swarm the walls, as if overrun with nagware.
A hostess joins us mid-stride, music creeping out from her headset. She doesn’t bother to catch our eye. “Headphones or no headphones?”
I don’t quite grasp the question. Rashida jumps in. “Headphones.”
Rashida’s a tiny, tattooed woman with a split mohawk and diagonal makeup. She’s forever hyping these new-age bars. She shimmies to an unheard beat. She runs her fingers across the walls. The ads close in on her touch, pulsing, like strobe lights.
The hostess nods to a corner booth. She doesn’t seem to be leaving. I turn to Rashida. “Are we supposed to tip her?”
Rashida laughs, reaching towards and through the hostess. “She’s not real.”
The hostess points to Rashida’s side of the tabletop. She swipes down from the corner and a menu appears. She presses a picture of a die and a games list opens. She reaches again to the table, but Rashida sends her off with a flick of the wrist.
Rashida buries her eyes in her side of the screen, effortlessly navigating through the bar’s portal. I try to follow along but the technology is foreign. I’ve waited weeks to be this close to her and yet I’ve never felt so far.
It’s hard to concentrate. The screens keep buzzing as if everyone’s just won a big jackpot. Meanwhile, I’ve yet to advance past the homepage.
I tap at the only icon I can decipher, a pitcher of beer. A subtotal appears on the screen. Beer flows from a tap directly into our glasses. The image of the pitcher shows that a third of our purchase is gone.
“Why not try a pound of our beer-battered wings?”
The voice comes from a heavy man in a white chef’s coat. He’s mere inches from my face. I shove him with my forearm and he dissipates.
Rashida smiles. “Now you’re getting it. I hate those damn popups.”
She searches through the portal for the perfect song, her translucent headphones changing colours with the rhythm of the music. Each time she clicks on a new artist, the band members appear on our tabletop.
She settles on a pop punk duo. The lead singer has diagonal makeup just like Rashida. No, wait, the lead singer is Rashida. How did she do that?
She looks slimmer in the projection, and the blemishes on her face have been smoothed. When the song reaches its angered crescendo, her eyes grow a fiery unnatural red, just like her headphones.
It’s hard to believe she’s really on our table. I try to peer past the projection to see if she’s physically in her chair, but no matter which way I look the drummer blocks my view.
The drummer is clearly enjoying himself. He sets a beat no human could possibly produce without the appendages of an octopus.
The song builds to one final note. The drummer strikes the cymbal with his head, sending out auditory shockwaves towards Rashida. She jumps to her knees, like a character in a videogame, but she’s caught in the surge.
The tsunami-like force sends her flying to her seat. She struggles to catch her breath. “That was wild! You have to try that.”
“How?” I fiddle through the portal, but I can’t make sense of the commands.
Rashida either misses or ignores my question. She chooses a new band, only this time she’s not part of it. The singer is wearing a jacket made out of what looks like a rubbery tinfoil. The music is rhythmic, practically robotic.
Rashida twitches to the beat. It’s hard to tell if she’s dancing or seizing. She’s staring past me to a chiseled blond at the next table. His shirt’s unbuttoned to his navel.
She blows a kiss at her side of the screen and swipes it to him. His table glows pink. He passes his eyes over the curves of her body, then whispers something into his screen.
She’s laughing almost as hard as she’s blushing. She traces the word ‘handle?’ onto her screen and flicks it in his direction. His response is practically instantaneous: @Surferbro41.
She double taps his handle and his whole life appears. Everything revolves around surfing and escaping his shirt. She’s practically salivating.
The surfer stands on the edge of his chair, as if it’s a diving board, and propels himself forward into his screen. A splash of water shoots out from our tabletop. I duck to avoid the spray, but the water’s not real.
Somehow the surfer’s hair is wet. Even stranger, he’s sitting at our table. He taps on the pitcher of beer and the tube fills his glass. He smiles at the chef. “Yeah, I would like to try those wings.”
I can’t believe his moxie. “Hey! Who invited you anyw—” My voice cuts off mid-sentence. I struggle to say more. I’ve been muted.
The surfer and Rashida are laughing. I catch my reflection off the screen. There’s a large strip of duct tape over my mouth. I flick it away.
The surfer pulls his arm out of his shirt to show Rashida a tattoo of an angel. He supinates his wrist and it morphs into the devil.
Rashida hikes up her skirt to show a 3D tattoo of a panther. When she arches her hips, the panther lunges forward. She locks eyes with the surfer. “Do you have any more tattoos?”
He stands up. “You’ll need to allow adult content first.” He reaches for his zipper. He pauses. “You have a credit card, right?”
She taps her watch to the screen.
I scream out. “Who do you think you are talking to a lady like that?”
A bouncer in a yellow jacket steps between the surfer and me. I try to flick him off, but he won’t budge. He grabs hold of my arm and twists it behind my back.
I don’t understand how he has physical hold of me. He must be a projection. He appeared out of thin air. I cry out in pain. “Get off me! Rashida, help!”
She won’t meet my eye. She opens her calendar and slides in the surfer’s handle. Her screen glows green.
I feel a vibration on my free wrist. It’s my calendar syncing. My plans, originally until midnight, are ending now. What had once been called a date now shows as having a drink.
The bouncer digs his knee into my back. “Are you going to leave on your own or do we have a problem?”
I shoot Rashida a dirty look but she looks away. I struggle to eke out a few words. “Is this really what you want?”
She adjusts her diagonal makeup in the reflection off the screen. “It’s nothing personal. I’m just looking for someone a bit more modern.”
“He’s not even real!”
“At least he can get past the homepage.” She scrolls through an unseen menu and flicks something at me.
Ads pop up for different bars in the area. Each one looks as modern and confusing as this one. “I don’t want to go to some weirdo bar. I just want to go home.”
She finally meets my eye. “No problem.” She jerks her arm as if shifting a transmission and a vehicle icon appears. She passes it to me.
The bouncer lifts me by my collar. “It’s time to go pal.” He shoves me down the hallway.
The hostess appears and guides me back the way we came. I steal one last glance at Rashida. She’s sitting on the surfer’s lap. He’s feeding her a chicken wing.
I follow the hostess down the hallway. The ads on the wall highlight the fast food chains on my route home. I receive a notification on my watch, a receipt for the pitcher of beer.
My ride is waiting for me out front and I climb into the backseat. I feel my phone vibrating. “You were such good company tonight!”
I double check the message to make sure it’s from Rashida. My phone suggests a string of emojis and I approve the response.
I settle into my seat, relieved to be away from the chaos. I look to my watch, sighing, knowing there’s nine minutes of my life I’m never getting back.