Going Well For You, Guys?
I feel bitter. The beer tastes bitter. Right, that's not strange, it is a pint of bitter, after all. But I'm bitter, I smile bitterly and, worse of all, I feel l've turned into an embittered man.
I was ditched. Sold down the river. Taken for a ride. And all of them simultaneously. I sip at my bitter bitter.
It's my favourite bar and my favourite stool. I used to come here often. Mostly with Cooper, six or seven times Rob thought he'd treat me to a "winner's drink" after some bodacious stunt of pecuniary prestidigitation we'd perpetrate and some dozen times throughout the years with Rachel. I used to come here often. Nowadays, I come here very often. I come here every day.
I'm about to become a heavy drinker. A designated drinker. I'm not the "I-drink-in-order-to-forget" guy. I just have plenty of time on my hands. My work used to occupy most of my waking hours. Now I've given it up. I must admit, I have got a pretty sum of money stashed at the bank. Other people's money. I sold them dreams. Some came true, some didn't. They knew the cost and the risk, so they wouldn't blame me, whatever the outcome. I made quite some money, the ones above me made much more, the ones above the ones above me made shitloads of it. I've given up my high-paid disgusting job.
And now I'm biding my time, or rather waiting to summon up courage enough for my next move. It's been building itself inside me for, oh, so many years, it's absolutely ripe. I'll travel a bit and I'll finish my once-begun book. When – back then – I set myself into giving it birth, I'd thought I could finish it without much traveling. But then Rachel came my way and I had to work and to deal with life in general. And gradually Rachel became my way, work was ever demanding, life more complicated. Now it's simpler, I think. Rachel went her way and I decided I won't work for those arses anymore. When my money runs out, I'll just be a full-time writer. If I make it, well, I'll carry on. If not, I'll welcome poverty. Till then, I'll be drinking.
I really used to enjoy my time here. Usually, it was during the much-needed lunch break, Cooper and other guys would gather for a drink and a snack, a sports review or we'd just chew the rag or shoot the bull. We'd all cherish these moments. And sometimes I'd come here with Rach for a nightcap or for shelter till the occasional sudden rain would mar our walk home. I cherished those moments.
Now, it's all much more commonplace. But till I'm ready to take the plunge… hey, that phrase I'd recently read in an article has a nice ring to it, describes my situation exactly… it, in fact, describes Rachel's escapade, too… well, till then, I'll be drinking.
I didn't notice the man at the other end of the bar, but when I did I was pretty sure I knew him. My mind was a little groggy and I was seeing him as through a haze. Well, he could be anyone, a neighbour, the kind you often meet but never get to greet, a delivery person at the office, a stall-attendant downtown. Whatever, this bloke had an angular, boney, masculine face… as if not all men do. Well, even me, if you caught me on a bad day you'd say "you're not the man you used to be". All sorted, then!
I kept looking at him idly and, as chance would have it, he returned my look briefly. Looked straight again, then seconds later he looked at me more carefully, more purposefully.
"Oh, no, thank you, the gay community had its go at slapping me at my face, no, thank you, not my cup of tea" I think I thought.
Then the man stood up from his stool and came unmistakably towards me, a gentle smile on his lips. "Here we go, now, how do I get rid of him without making a scene?..."
"You're Heck, right?" he says in a cultivated baritone voice. "We have met… briefly, if you remember the occasion".
Now, I have to try really hard to adapt to this, and fast, at that. His manner isn't the pick-up type, his face looks now very sincere and honest, plus he has the advantage over me. I really can't just send him off. I take a deep breath and try to be my old self again, figuring that that would be the "Heck" he'd met. I return his smile.
"I, too, thought I knew you, but at the moment I'm a bit…". I look at my glass. "…distracted" I finish lamely, hoping he'll understand.
He must have. He makes a gesture as if indicating the three or four empty glasses he left where he sat. His smile, too, is pained. He nods.
"So am I, I guess. I don't usually drink, but these days… I feel like it".
There's something there. I look at him earnestly.
"So, where is it you say we've met? You said 'briefly'…"
His smile is more cheerful now. "You were with your wife, Rachel. We met in the woods".
I almost slapped my brow. I remember with a blow. One of the gay guys we thought were peeping on us, no more than two months back. In the woods, indeed. A small world. But the memory brought back quite a load along. No, I don't think I'd have anything to hold against this man, least of all his reminding me that I lost my love to a gay woman, but I think it was since that night that things between Rach and me went downhill. At any rate, I'd be civil.
"In the woods, is right. You're Michael, aren't you? As was your… companion, Michael too, right?"
And then the pain reappears on his face. I'm not that drunk as not to notice that I hit a nerve there, but now I'm not indifferent anymore. In all kindness, if not mere politeness, I think I should ask.
"So… it's going well for you guys?".
Michael looks down. Oh, boy, I'm not sorry I asked, I'm sorry for having guessed, but it happens all the time, doesn't it? It does, I remind myself. Michael raises his eyes again and looks at me directly.
"We're not together anymore. It didn't work out". He looks down again.
I don't want to pity the man. I don't want to savage him and I don't want to conduct a here's-a-shoulder-to-cry-on, half-drunken, miserable consolation jeremiad. So, what do I do? What would I expect of a friend in such a case? Cooper had made that speech for me, he talked at Luce sternly, perhaps he was instrumental in her deciding to get off the picture, but Destiny found a shortcut back. Since then, I met Coop two or three times, we drank a few glasses. He didn't offer me a shoulder to cry on, but always seemed concerned. I could guess why. He'd occasionally been a 'back-door man', but – call it 'professional ethics' – he never caused anyone pain. So he said and I believe he meant it, albeit metaphorically! In my case, he felt the injustice and made a stand, but hearts have their own ways. Yes, that's exactly what I'll tell Michael in true sympathy.
"I'm really very, very sorry" is what comes out of my mouth and I pause. Slip of the tongue? No. My feelings exactly, I'm sorry I left Rachel, and she me, I'm sorry for all Michaels of the world leaving their other half, their other Michaels. I really am.
"But hearts have their own ways" I utter with relief that I managed to. "In time… it'll be alright" I say with all the certainty I could command.
He smiles again gently. "And how is your lovely, wife, Rachel?" he asks quickly, as if having forgotten his manners.
Now, I didn't avert my look. I keep looking him in the eye, my silence answering for my answer, giving him time to guess. Which he presently does.
"You don't mean…" he lets it hang.
"It's universal" I announce philosophically. "Hearts have their own ways".
He nods repeatedly at this, but is not fully convinced. "But you looked so happy together" he insists.
Bitterness, all over again. "That's exactly what I'd been thinking till that moment. But something had been going on, something of which I knew nothing, something over which I had no control."
His eyes keep boring into mine. Not out of indiscretion, I'm now certain, but perhaps he wants to diagnose through my story the causes of his separation.
"But you were married" he insists, as if he can't bring himself to believing that a marriage could end. Is he, then, such a faithful kind of person? "Should a marriage end because of a difficulty? Doesn't marriage entail overcoming even the hardest obstacles?"
I'm impressed! This guy must be very philosophical, very pure… or very naïve! Either way, his frankness calls for an equally frank response.
"You'd said it yourself, Michael, that marriage seemed like a nice thing. It is, I assure you. Although, in my case, me and Rachel had been more 'together' than married, more time, at it". My head is getting clearer with each phrase pronounced. But a suppressed emotion seeps through, starts getting over me, so it's either talk this through or break down and cry. "There are bound to be difficulties in any kind of relationship, but… this… losing my wife to a lesbian girl… Almost inconceivable to me…"
I say this in a heart-felt way, but almost casually. The effect, however, on him is quite dramatic. His big eyes now look sadder than before. He must be very compassionate or…
Oh, no. It is this issue, then. And I realise I've blundered. At least I've caused him undeserved shame.
"I'm very sorry" is his turn to say. His eyes are downcast, scanning the floor. He shrugs in helplessness. And more. It must have cut him to the heart, the way the word 'lesbian' exited my mouth, but now this can't be taken back.
"I'm sorry" he says again and I think he is really disturbed. He looks at me timidly. "You must hate me… hate all of… us".
Because I now am fully convinced of the kind soul this guy has, I have to act quick. I grab his arm.
"No, Michael, for God's sake, it has nothing to do with you or anyone being gay. And, sincerely, I don't regard my ex-… my Rachel as a gay person. She just met someone who… awoke inside her something new, something… powerful enough to act crazy… or act totally-in-love, if you will". I pause, I reflect, I know. I face him again. "I love her. I still love her. I'll always love her. And if you ask yourself, you'll get the same answer. People come and go. Love remains. Inside".
He's close to tears and so am I. I reach for my bitter, but he has none. With his free hand he pats my shoulder.
"Thank you, Heck. You're a nice guy, a good chap. Well" he turns to leave "I guess we'll be seeing each other here at the bar".
"We will, Michael" I promise him "we will".
"First one with a new partner wins" he says jokingly, cheerful again.
"First one with a partner buys all drinks" I return.
My head is completely clear by now. I review our talk and feel like I've known him for years.
But, then again, that night I'd admitted I sometimes felt as if I'd met Rachel only hours before, as if I'd known her, as if I knew her, only a little. Little did I know…
I shake my head. I raise my hand. I order one more bitter.