What follows is a longer short story. The idea came to me about a week ago and I’ve been thinking it over, developing it in my mind ever since. The funny thing is that once I got the outline done, I had a hard time seeing it through. Dialogue has always been a weak point for me and this story relies heavily on it. Anyway, I hope you enjoy it. Full text is after the jump. – Anonyman
The streets glistened as the cab pulled up to the curb outside the bar. Instead of a cooling things down, the rain had only made the night air sultry and oppressive. It hit Brian as soon as he stepped out of the air conditioned back seat.
Inside it was bearable again. The thing Brian loved about this bar was how quiet it was. The lights were turned down, mellow jazz played quietly from the overhead speakers, and best of all there was no trouble finding two seats at the bar. He loved taking his wife here for drinks, especially after midnight. It was a great place to sit and talk away from the four walls of their apartment.
Brian picked two seats at the end of the bar, away from the other patrons. They didn’t have to wait long before the bartender came over.
“Back again, I see.”
“That’s right, Alister,” Brian replied. He had come to know Alister pretty well over the last few months. At first he had come to drink alone during the worst of the troubles, when he needed to get away or was pushed away. But as things improved with Michelle he started bringing her here with him. In any case, he had ample opportunity to talk to the man.
Alister was a transplant from England. His accent wasn’t quite cockney, but it wasn’t exactly the queen’s English either. Like many in his profession, his gift was in getting people to talk about themselves while drinking his booze. He was tight-lipped about himself, but Brian had overheard him discussing matters political, scientific, and artistic with such aplomb as to make clear he had the benefit of a good education in his past. With his thick beard and shaved head, it was hard to tell if he was a wise-beyond-his-years thirty-something or a baby-faced, well-traveled man of his mid fifties. In short, he was a wise, friendly enigma to his customers.
“What will it be? The usual?,” he asked.
“You know me too well. One of these days I’ll switch it up just to keep you on your toes,” Brian replied.
“If you do, I’ll learn that one, too. A good bartender always knows his customers… especially the ones who tip well,” Alister added with a smile. “Two Manhattans – no cherry – coming up.”
As Alister walked away to prepare the drinks, Brian turned to his wife. She smiled at him quietly, just letting him look at her. After all they had been through, it was a miracle she could still smile at him. He smiled back until he began to feel self-conscious and had to turn away sheepishly.
“I love the way you smile, baby. I always have. I doesn’t matter how bad my day was or what kind of mood I’m in, when I see your smile it makes it all better.”
Her continued smile was all the reply he needed.
“I still remember the first time we met. You walked in the room and we were introduced. As soon as you smiled at me, I was smitten. I thought you were way out of my league, but I had to get to know you better. I guess I still am.
“I know I say it all the time, but I love you. You’re not just beautiful on the outside, you’re beautiful inside, too. You’re kind and forgiving, generous, selfless, gracious as well as graceful. You’re funny and you think I’m funny, too – which I would normally consider a character flaw in a person. Not you though. You love me for who I am – in spite of who I am. I didn’t know what love was until you showed me.
“I know I’ve made some pretty stupid decisions in my life, but marrying you was at least one thing I got right. I’m so glad you stayed with me all these years, after all the times I wasn’t what you needed me to be. God knows I don’t deserve you, especially after what I did.”
It always came back to that lately.
“But we don’t have to get into that again, not tonight,” he added. He couldn’t bear to look at her. The silence felt like a reproach he didn’t want to acknowledge. Fortunately Alister was just finishing up their drinks.
“Here you go. Enjoy,” Alister said as he set their drinks down on the bar.
“Thanks, mate,” Brian replied.
Brian grasped his glass between his thumb and forefinger, and held aloft in a toast. “To us,” he said before taking a sip. It smelled wonderful and was smooth going down, with just enough bite from the bourbon and bitters to make it interesting.
When he looked over, Michelle was still smiling at him. I have an amazing wife, he thought. She can still smile at me.
“Alister does a good job. Not too sweet and not too bitter, unlike most places. That’s why I like coming here. Well, part of the reason. It’s nice that we can come here and talk. Although, I guess I’m the one doing all the talking tonight,” he added self-consciously. “But that’s okay, it gives me a chance to tell you how wonderful you are.
“You do look beautiful tonight, by the way. I hope I’m not being too presumptuous in hoping that I might go home with the most beautiful woman in the bar tonight.”
He chuckled to himself. She was the most beautiful woman in here. Of course, it had been a while since they had made love, but that was okay. They had both decided to take a step back for a bit. Still, hope springs eternal, as he liked to tell himself. She was still smiling as sweetly as ever, even if she didn’t laugh at his lame joke, so maybe he did have a chance. It had been a while and he missed holding her body next to his, naked and unashamed.
His smile faded. It had been a long time since he had felt unashamed, naked or clothed.
“I don’t want to push you though,” he said seriously. “I’m just glad you’re here with me tonight. Not to be selfish, but sharing a drink with you sure beats the hell out of drinking alone.”
Brian took a long sip from his drink, savoring it. Drinking alone, whether by his choice or hers, hadn’t done him any good. All it did was lower his inhibitions to the point where he couldn’t not think of all the things he’d done, all the things he wished he could forget.
Even though they’d been together then, sharing the apartment, that was a loneliness almost too much to bear. Being alone with one’s thoughts, unable to escape them, unable to share them with the woman he loved. Thankfully, that time in his life was over and even if they didn’t talk about it all the time, at least he wasn’t alone anymore.
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be a downer on our date,” he said, breaking the uncomfortable silence. “I guess it’s just always hanging over us like a black clound. It’s all my fault. I know you’ve forgiven me and you’ve decided to stay with me, but it’s always there, you know? There just doesn’t seem to be anything that it hasn’t ruined, or broken, or affected in some way.
“I wish I could take back what I did because it was stupid and selfish. I’m sorry it took this long for me to realize just how lucky I am and how much I was risking. But, see, this is what I’m talking about – you still love me in spite of all of that. Not every woman would take her husband back, but you have. Thank you. Thank you for loving me. Thank you for forgiving me.”
Having finished his monologue of guilt, Brian looked into her eyes. He could see the forgiveness in the way she looked at him. He knew she loved him and had forgiven him. In her eyes was hope for an unclouded future, a happy life with his best friend and soulmate.
“I guess that’s enough of my rambling for one night. Why don’t we finish our drinks and go for a walk?”
As he sipped the last of his drink, he felt good about life. She had given him hope yet again. This didn’t have to beat him or them as a couple. Things weren’t good yet, but they would be. He knew they would.
“Another beer, John?” Alister asked.
“Yeah, another Guinness. So let me ask you something,” said the customer sitting next to the taps.
“Go ahead,” Alister replied as he started filling another pint glass.
“What’s the deal with him?” he said, nodding towards Brian as he walked out into the night.
“Oh, that’s just Brian,” Alister replied as though that was explaination enough. He was being tight lipped as usual, drawing out his customer. John waited for more from the bartender, but none came.
“So does he always do that – order two drinks, mumble to himself, leave the second drink untouched?” John asked impatiently. “You know, that sort of thing.”
“No, Brian’s been a regular since ’round the first ‘o Spring, but he lost his wife about three months ago. Been doing that ever since.”
“Oh jeez, poor guy. What was it – car accident? Cancer?”
Alister grinned and shook his head, knowing he had hooked his customer. “She’s not dead – she left ‘im. Seems he had himself a little affair and the missus found out about it. He came in here for months, crying in his beer about how they were tryin’ to work it out. Seemed like they were gonna be alright though, at least to her him tell it.”
“Oh, so what happened? Did he cheat on her again or something?” he said, not bothering to hide his disgust for cheaters.
“Not that I know of, although it’s impossible to get details out of him now. No, one night he comes in with his wife – a real looker she was, too. They sit down at the bar and have their two Manhattans, made with Knob Creek since that’s her favorite bourbon. They talked for maybe an hour and then went for a walk. Seemed fine when they left.
“I didn’t see Brian for ’bout a week after that, and I was starting to think I wouldn’t see him anymore, seein’ as how they’d worked it out. Turns out I was wrong. He finally shows up one night after midnight and orders two drinks – one for him and one for his wife. I brought ’em over and kept waiting for his wife to show. What do you think he does, but drink his Manhattan, pay his tab and go walking out into the night. Just left the other ‘un there on the bar.
“A couple of night’s later he does the same thing, then again and again. Three months it’s been like this. He comes in after midnight, sits down by himself, orders his two drinks, drinks one, then leaves. Sometimes he mumbles to himself, othertimes he’s just got this far away look in his eyes. It’s like he’s sleepwalking or something.”
“That’s weird,” John interjected.
“Yeah, but that’s not all,” Alister said leaning in over the bar. “I doubt you would have seen it down here, but he had his mobile on the bar. It’s got a picture of his wife on it. He talks to her, or sometimes just stares at the picture, and in his mind that’s her. He thinks she’s there next to him having a drink. Pretty quick, I gave up trying to convince him otherwise. That’s all he has left of her now, anyway.”
Alister handed the beer to his customer.
“Poor bastard,” he replied, taking a sip from his glass. “Poor crazy bastard. But what does he expect? Cheating on his wife – of course she hates him after what he did to her.”
Alister stood up straight again and his countenance became unusually dark. “Ol’ Brian is a broken man, so don’t you be so quick to judge. You’re young still and I don’t expect you’d understand. See I haven’t finished the story.”
“Well go on then,” he replied, feeling chastened by the bartender’s sudden turn.
“A couple of weeks after Brian went queer, his wife showed up right after we opened at dinner. She told me the rest of the story. After they left the bar that night, they went out for their walk. He was saying all the right things, how he was truly sorry and he was willing to do whatever it took. He really thought they were gonna to make it, but she just couldn’t.
“She left him at the end of the walk. Told him she forgave him, but she just couldn’t stand the pain of being with him anymore. She went and stayed the night in a hotel. The next day she packed up and left him alone in their apartment. She’s got some place of her own now, over on the east side.
“She came in because one of their mutual friends tipped her off to what he was doing. Apparently he kept telling the same story ’bout going out for drinks with her even after she had left. She came in here to find out what was going on. Between the two of us, we figured out he was reliving their last night together over and over – coming here for drinks, then going out for a walk.”
“That’s messed up,” he said, shaking his head.
“Yeah. I think she suspected he had gone mad, but it hit her hard once she knew for sure. Poor thing broke down right her at the bar.”
“It’s sad,” he said thoughtfully. “But why does she care? She left him.” John still didn’t get it. Whatever she did to him, even if it drove him round the bend, Brian brought it on himself by having the affair. Sure he pitied him for going crazy – going to the same bar and reliving the night she left him over and over. But shouldn’t she hate him? Shouldn’t she want nothing to do with him?
“That’s my point. She didn’t leave him because she hates him, she left him because she had to. Hopefully you’ll never see this yourself, but sometimes the hurt runs too deep. People break things that can’t be put back together, even when there is love. She still loves him, still cares about him.
“But love’s not enough. John Lennon was singing a load of bollocks with his ‘All You Need is Love.’ An’ he should know – he cheated on his wife, too. Left her to raise his son while he ran off with that harpy. It was McCartney who wrote Hey Jude for Lennon’s son because his dad abandoned him and his mum.
“Anyway, she couldn’t stay with Brian, not after what he’d done. She’ll never get over it, not really. Her only choice to save her own sanity was to leave him. You know what she told me before she left? She said, ‘Brian’s a good man, he just made a really bad mistake. I’ve forgiven him, but I just can’t forget what he did. It was driving me insane – living with the man I loved but also the man who betrayed me. Watch over him for me,’she said, ‘especially when he finally wakes up from his dream.'”
“Hmmpfff.” John was surprised. Cheating had always seemed so black and white before, but if she could say that after being betrayed… “Do you think he’ll ever wake up and realize what’s happened?”
“Who can say? But if he does, it’ll make these last three months seem like nothin’ at all.”
John was struck by the truth of it – the awful, wrenching truth of what it would be like to wake up and realize real life is the nightmare.
“Jesus,” he said quietly to himself. “There but for the grace of God…”
“I’ll drink to that,” Alister said before walking away, leaving his customer to his beer and his thoughts.