He collapsed onto the bench beside me.
He sat for a moment soaking in the last of the September sunset; away to our left the sun ignited the sky, washing everything with a warm, pulsing glow. The traffic down the hill below us flowed along with its undercurrent of beeps and the throttled thrum of downshifting tractor trailers.
“How are you today?”
He laughed—or at least something that passed for a laugh.
“You know, you’re about the only person who asks that. Normally it’s you good . . . how are you . . . I’m so sorry.” He shook his head, “I never really know what to say, so I don’t say anything much more than I’m okay . . . I’m fine . . . thanks for asking. It’s like they’re embarrassed to talk about it.”
“It’s tough to know what to say.”
I pulled my flask out of my jacket and offered it to him. He took it without looking, unscrewed the cap scree scree and took a pull.
“You know the hardest one I get? When they say you’ll meet someone else, don’t you worry, such a great guy like you, just you wait, when you least expect it. What if I don’t want to meet anyone else?”
He twisted the cap back and forth scree scree scree.
“Is that wrong?”
I shook my head, “No.”
“I mean, the people who say that, maybe they just experience love on a different plane from me.” He took another swallow, coughed. “I can still remember the first time I saw her. Fifteen years ago, and I remember it like it was yesterday, and it wasn’t love at first sight—I don’t believe in that—but it was something. I knew there was something about her—this blonde, green eyed creature who’d stepped out of some fairy tale and cracked the foundation of everything I thought I knew about life. She didn’t even notice me—there were hundreds of people around—but I couldn’t stop staring at her. I knew I had no chance. And then she actually said yes . . .”
scree scree scree
“I remember what she wore on our first date, that green sweater . . . her favorite color . . . man, the way it made her eyes crack . . . I don’t think I tasted one thing I ate that night. I couldn’t stop staring at her. I was afraid it was a joke, like the maître d’ was going to come up during the middle of our appetizer, tap me on the shoulder, and say I’m so sorry, sir, but there’s been a mistake. The lady’s real date just arrived. It’s time for you to go. And then some James Bond deal would walk up, take my glass of wine, and smile while the hostess showed me out the door.
Do you know what it’s like to be so out of your league you feel like you’re drowning? all the time? That’s the way I felt with her. Always. Like I was drowning. It hurt to breathe sometimes.”
A big rig hit its jake brakes and grumbled down the hill, the rumble reverberating around us. He turned to look at it then looked down at the flask like he’d forgotten he was holding it. Passed it back to me. The bourbon was good, the warm bite crawled down my throat.
“I know that look, you’ve got something rolling around in that brain. You can say it.”
I took another swallow, “Okay, I see it this way: I don’t think we look back at the past with rose-colored glasses simply because of how good the past was, but rather because we think about all the pain we’ve been through in the interim, and we realize that that past version of ourself hasn’t experienced that pain yet. We want to keep them always as happy and unscarred as they were back then.
I know that doesn’t make you feel any better. She’s gone—it was out of your control, is what I’m trying to say—and unfortunately, life’s instruction manual is pretty cut and dried: Pain Included. No Refunds. Thanks for Playing.” I shrugged, “Whether we like it or not.”
His voice climbed, a hard edge tinging it, “But just because she’s not in my life anymore doesn’t mean she’s gone from here.” He tapped his temple with two fingers. “Just last week I was at the mall, I was gonna buy a watch. I was at the counter, you know, just looking and all of a sudden I felt like she was behind me. I smelled her. That perfume she wore— I knew if I turned around she’d be standing behind me looking at me with those eyes. I froze. It was so real. I just stood there waiting for her to slip up behind me and rest her chin on my shoulder and whisper hey you watcha doing . . . I knew it was her, but I knew it wasn’t at the same time. This girl steps up beside me and it’s all I can do not to fold in on myself and go to pieces right there in the middle of the damn store. That girl had no idea when she put on that perfume that morning . . . she had no idea what she’d do to me . . .”
He grabbed his head with both hands, “There’s this splinter of her in here.”
“Of course there is. And it might take years before it works itself out to a place where you can finally grab it, pull it free. Put it to rest.”
He closed his eyes, whispered, “Dammit it hurts.”
“I know it does. Splinters always do.”
He rubbed his eyes, leaned back and looked across to the dying horizon before pulling a package out of his jacket. With a quiet exhale he unrolled it on his lap, the paper shaking in his hands.
“Can I get one more hit of that?”
He took the flask, rubbing the worn leather with numb fingertips.
scree scree scree
“She loved those,” I said.
He knelt and laid them alongside the marble headstone.
“Yeah. She did.”