I drew the shutters of the bar I worked at around one in the morning. Ch— used to work there as well. That’s how we first met. But she had quit in a huff a few weeks earlier and began working at a nearby club.
I lived nearby, in a one-room flat without its own bathroom. Since I got up at noon, I wasn’t nearly tired enough to go to bed. I ate a couple slices of pizza, watching the punks dance and shout in the plaza. When I finished eating, I headed to the club where she worked.
I sat on the bar while she worked, sipping a scotch with a single ice cube and read T.S. Eliot. When she had a moment to herself, she came and sat next to me. I put the book down. We would smoke and share our dreams of the future. She wanted to make hand-crafted jewellery. I wanted to be a writer of some sort.
It was a rock club, and the music was obnoxiously loud. We leaned in close to hear each other. I wanted to look at her face as deeply as if I was drinking to quench a vast thirst. But I had to look away from her to hear, lest our lips should meet.
I told her about a poem that made me think of her. She told me that the owner had made a pass at her yesterday, when they were closing. The way he did it scared her. Then she laughed it off and went to serve drinks.
When I was too drunk to read, I stared at the bottles, shelved high behind the bar. Their geometric arrangement, glittering in the din, afforded me some comfort. A place for the mind to focus and rest. I tried not to follow her with my eyes as she moved in the club, but I doubt I succeeded.
Her shift ended at three. We clambered outside together. I stared up and down the empty street. The night was blank above us. On other nights, this is when she would abandon me. She always had somewhere to go, other people to be with. The buses would not start running until five, and she lived too far away to take a cab. So there was always this time she had to kill.
Tonight she asked me what we were going to do.
My heart skipped a beat. I didn’t have a plan. The possibility of needing one had not occurred to me. Something yanked at my stomach.
She locked her arm in mine and I knew everything would be fine. We wandered around, to see what we might find. We went to a nearby bar where a common friend of ours was playing music, but they’d closed up early. I reminded her about that poem I thought she would like. I had the copy at my flat. It wasn’t far. In a turn of events the like of which has not occurred before, or after, or possibly ever, she agreed to come back to my flat to hear a poem recited.
By the time we got there, we had forgotten about it. We ended up sitting on my bed, playing cards, drinking cheap white wine. We didn’t turn the radio on. The flat was blessedly silent. The only sounds came from us. The only writhing, living beings.
I wanted to lean in and kiss her, but I wasn’t sure how she would react. Did she want me to? I wasn’t going to be like the other guys in her life.
I waited for a sign. Something that would make clear her intentions.
We had known each other for less than a month, but I had been hounding her ever since. At first I thought her beautiful, if a bit silly. But it wasn’t her looks that caused me to seek her out in the night. It was that stubborn optimism, which I’d first dismissed as naïveté. I came to see it for the strength that it was, for the puzzle piece I lacked. For she was, in her cheerful wilfulness, the opposite of myself.
We played cards. We emptied the bottle of wine. Birds began to chirp. Dawn broke. It was a quarter to six. I offered to accompany her to the bus. She refused, but then accepted. We walked slightly apart, without speaking.
At the bus stop, in the amber light of the morning, she hugged me and kissed me on the cheek, tearing up as she did so. I didn’t understand why, and she had to get on the bus before I could ask her.
I went looking for her, but she wasn’t working the next couple nights. I became sullen — I was sullen a lot in that decade — and avoided her. Two weeks passed before I went to the club again. She told me she was planning to quit. She wanted to check out a goth bar that had opened in a new location and was looking for staff. We headed there together after her shift ended. I wanted her to explain but I couldn’t find a way to ask. I watched her dance with another man, one she’d just met.
I put my drink down. I told her I had to go, and went.
The memory of that young man from long ago, playing cards in the cramped room, strangled by longing, arose in my mind during meditation. On account of details that you can infer from the story, as well as those that you cannot, my limbs were flooded by successive waves of embarrassment and shame. Eventually the agitation subsided, and I was present again in my body. As my mind settled once more, a smile formed on my lips. I wished I could have imparted a piece of now-obvious wisdom to my younger self: She was sitting on your bed at four in the morning. What the hell other sign were you looking for?
Photo of a woman with braided hair by Tamara Bellis [CC0].