He remembered the first kiss. The first time he stayed the night. The first date. The first argument. Moving in together. Smoking marijuana, having sex. Standing naked in the kitchen with the munchies, devouring a box of cereal. Her late nights after work. The call after the accident. She was okay, but he saw the note. The loss of trust. Robin and her advances. The time apart and his infidelity. Eating lunch while Robin waited on them. Moving to another place. Failing. Moving apart.
Connecting with each other over the next twenty years. One last attempt to rekindle. It wasn’t in the stars.
She has never come to him in a dream. It’s always while he’s preoccupied with the world. Watching the trees lining Lake Bentley, or the people exercising by Randall Park. That’s where he thinks about her. At the mall, with the smell of commerce and his memory of buying a comforter for their bed. But he also accepts that she’s gone. Right now, he wants to embrace the present. He took up yoga a few years back, and he feels like it has helped him be.
The woman at the counter of his local CVS is watching him. She has noticed him zoning out.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
“I’m great!” he replies, knowing that he is not lying to her. He pays for his disposable razors and shaving cream and leaves the store. He has a lunch date with his mother.
“You know your uncle is very sick, right?” his mother says to him.
“I know. It’s sad. I wish I knew him better,” he replies.
They eat most of their lunch with polite laughter and some small talk. They enjoy this time together. They always have.
He kisses her goodbye in the parking lot. He gets in his car and waits until she drives off. And then he pulls some coke from his glove compartment and takes a small bump into his nose. He waits, lets the familiar feeling wash over him. He licks his teeth and shakes his head. He lets out a triumphant snort and drives off to the next place he calls fun.
It’s a quiet bar called Donny’s. He’s been here only a handful of times, but he likes it. The bartender is old and leaves him alone. The patrons don’t talk to each other. They spend most of their time with their heads hung low over a beer, or a shot of bourbon, or some wine. This is his time to reflect again.
She was a dancer, classically trained in college, and would dance for him in the beginning. And when she finished, she would get undressed and seduce him. It was easy back then. He was young. Too young for her, she proclaimed one day before they were even a thing. That was over hamburgers with their mutual friend Chuck.
He can still see her face when they watched movies. He would steal sideways glances to see if she was reacting to a horror movie with fright or a thriller with excitement and anxious laughter. They watched many movies. Her experience with film was different from his. But they both shared a love for great cinema. He took her to the movies often. She never complained about it. Instead, embracing the conversations she would have with him when they would stop at the breakfast place and have egg skillets with sausage, and cheese, and peppers.
But now he’s alone with his thoughts, his brain swirling with cocaine and beer. The old bartender leaves him alone until he notices the empty beer bottle and slides over, his agility betraying his years, and in one quick motion, he swipes the empty beer bottle away, leaving a new, ice-cold beer in its place. Back to his thoughts.
“My brother lives there,” she tells him. “It would be perfect.”
“I agree,” he tells her. And they move to that new town together, the trip reigniting their passion. They ask friends to help them pack up a U-Haul and make the three-hour drive out of town to their new place. Mom waves goodbye to him from the driveway of his childhood home. She doesn’t cry yet. But he knows she will the moment she closes the garage door.
A large group of loud men enters the bar. He knows this is his cue to pay his tab and leave. But he also knows this is where the story starts. Most good stories start with some sort of problem, or confrontation, or dilemma. This one starts with a confrontation.
The large group of men moves to the bar. They are drunk, but the old bartender looks unfazed. He has dealt with this before. He has tossed out many drunks. The men are asking for pitchers of beer. So far, they can stay.
He pays the tab with too large of a tip, but he doesn’t want to wait for the bartender to make his change, just wanting to leave. He can tell something feels dangerous. It’s the group of men, of course. They exude sweat, filled with the stench of a long day of drinking and carousing and general mayhem. But not yet. Right now, they want pitchers of beer.
And as he’s walking out, doing his best impression of being invisible, he blurts out words that he knows he should never use. He doesn’t know why he says them, but he says it, nonetheless.
“Fucking assholes,” he says under his breath.
It takes only a moment, but it’s a moment that stretches out to a thousand years. The man standing near the back of the group was white-haired and tall. He has acid-washed jeans and a faded tattoo on his right forearm that seemed to stretch all the way to his fingertips. The man faces him, looks him dead in the eyes, and asks, “What did you say?”
“Fucking assholes.” He has no idea why he repeats it. But he does, and part of him knows this is how it’s supposed to go. This is how the story plays out.
They beat him badly. He isn’t a doctor and has no clue what is wrong, but he knows his body. And right now, his body is a wreck. They have kicked in his ribs. He is wheezing and spitting blood with each breath. His face feels too heavy, and he knows they’ve broken his nose. His ankles have been twisted the wrong way. And one knee looks three times too large, and he is laying in the dirt. The last of the men turning away from his wrecked body and going back into the bar. He can see the old bartender standing in the doorway, watching him and shaking his head. He has seen that look before. The bartender is judging him, Just another drifter with a mouth too big to pay its debts. And he knows the bartender is right. His mouth has always gotten him into trouble, even with her.
That first Christmas in their little apartment, they put up a tree. His friends from high school would come by to say hi. He wouldn’t see them very often after that. Life has a way of taking things away from us as we get older. The presents under the tree. Her leaving him to go see her family in upstate New York. The conversation about how men had cooler razors than women. He doesn’t let her leave that night after the argument. He’s crying because he’s afraid she’ll leave him. He comes from divorce, so he understands that words and declarations of love mean very little. She agrees to stay, and so it goes. A pattern that follows them to the new city with her brother. And then it’s time to depart. The new city brings new friends, new jobs, new girls. His weakness would always be the new girls.
He spent a week out of work, trying to recover. His body was too old and too out of shape to recover quickly. He drank too much and ran his mouth too much. This lesson was one he hoped he would learn from. But maybe not. He was always two steps forward, one step back. This one felt like twice that and still only one step forward. But he had done it to himself. As always, he never learned. But maybe this time he would try just a little harder. Try to make that change.
So he goes out for breakfast one morning and comes across a woman that takes his breath away. She looks just like her. A little older, of course, but that’s her. She’s alone (thank God), but there’s a place setting next to her at the table. Maybe the server forgot to pull it away. He orders his breakfast absentmindedly when his server comes by. He’s watching her, wondering, imagining that he should say hello.
His breakfast comes, and he sees that no one joins her at her table. This is good. This means he should go over there. He pushes his toast around on his plate, not very hungry, and walks over to her table. She notices him and smiles. He knows that smile. It’s a little crooked, and it melts his heart. It’s her. There’s no doubt it’s her.
“Good Morning,” she says.
He takes in her face. He remembers kissing her in the bedroom while Chuck was on the phone. Chuck had a thing for her. But Chuck didn’t get the girl that night, he did. And he lost her, too. Chuck may have made her happier than ever. But right now, she’s alone in front of him. And she’s smiling.
“Hi, Renie. It’s been a long time,” he says.
She takes only a moment to recognize his face. And that smile gets bigger. She recalls him fondly, he thinks. She’s happy to see him.
He points to the table. “May I join you? Or are you waiting for someone?” he asks.
She gestures towards the empty seat, and he sits down. A big exhale comes out of his lungs, and the pain of the bar fight revisits him. He’s not better yet.
“Ouch. That look on your face tells me you’re in some pain,” she says. “That and the shaving cuts on your face,” she says with a wink.
She’s too smart. She can already tell he’s been in some sort of bad situation. Maybe she’s not even surprised.
“I ran my mouth at a bar several days ago. Didn’t go well,” he says, wincing as he gets comfortable in his seat.
“And your face?” she asks, drawing a circle around hers with a pointer finger. He notices her hands are devoid of rings.