This is a story in three parts. The first is here.
The second glass of Jack and Coke the bartender puts in front of me is much bigger. There's hardly any ice in it. He winks when I look up at him, and I turn to The Great Houdini with an eyebrow raised.
“You had something to do with this.”
“I did not. I told you the drinks were strong here.”
“You need some water.”
“Shut the fuck up, sir,” I say, raising the glass to my lips.
We are cracking jokes, talking to strangers at the bar, and trading insults. I pretend not to notice that he is leaning closer to me than he was when I first arrived, his body heating up my entire right side. I am in the middle of saying something when I notice he is starting at me strangely.
“Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Like you’re looking at me right now.”
He opens his mouth and closes it, then again. A look passes over his face that I have only seen once before in our entire sorted history.
Immediately my brain starts sending my body distress signals.
“It’s just that… I dunno. After all this time… I just still think you are the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.”
I want to run. More than I have ever wanted anything in my whole life. Because what was light hearted and fun just a second ago has taken a turn down exactly the darkened street I didn’t want it to.
“No, just listen. I’m sorry. I am so sorry. About all of this. Everything. I hate thinking that I hurt you in any way. And I hate that I fucked us up. I’ve just missed you for so long and I always wanted you to know that what we had was real. That it was not fake. It was once in a lifetime and I-“
In his abrupt silence I find the courage to move my eyes from the bar top I’ve been assiduously studying, willing myself to go as numb as possible, and look up at him. Ribbons of red unfurl across the cinnamon skin on his cheeks. He has dropped his eyes from the side of my face where most of his outburst landed. Finally he looks back at me, and my heart drops to the floor. His eyes are red, tears streaming down his cheeks and I feel paralyzed by the sight.
“I’m just sorry.”
“It’s fine. I’m fine.”
“No, it’s not. And no, you’re not.”
We stare at each other, the strangers around us on mute. I am such a mess, so hyperaware I think I can feel every individual goose bump rising on my skin. I take a deep breath and soundlessly will them to stop betraying how affected I am.
“Let me go...” he says, and he’s off his stool and heading towards the bathroom before I can respond. When he's finally out of sight, I let go of the breath I’ve been holding. I need to get out of here. Immediately. I am trying to figure out how to run without being stopped by the bartender who might think we’re trying to skip out on paying our tab, and how I can weave through the crowd to get back to the rental car safely before he returns. I am pushing myself off the stool when he is back at my side.
“I think we should go,” he says. I look around and without my even realizing it, last call has come and gone and the bar has started to empty out. The lights are brighter. The music has stopped. Our tab has been sitting in front of me for God only knows how long. I missed it all.
He pays and we walk out in silence, him saying he will walk back to his place, and me insisting on driving him across the busy intersection that separates the bar from his complex. The silence stretches on once we get in the car, punctuated by his occasional directions that have us arrive at his front door.
I pull up, refusing to even put the car in park, my foot light on the brake and my eyes concentrated on the steering wheel.
“Get out and give me a hug. I might never see you again.”
“You might,” I protest, still not moving.
“Not if you have your way, I won’t.”
I put the car in park, my blood a jet engine in my ears, and get out. By the time he comes around the car to my side, I am still standing in the door, as far away from him as I can manage. He lifts his hand out to me, and I stare at it like I’ve never seen it before, despite the fact that the shape of them, the weight of them, every line etched in his palm was once home to me. I hesitate for awhile before I take it, steeling myself as he pulls me in for an embrace. He hugs me longer than he needs to, his hands low and intimate on the small of my back.
“I mean it, you know. I am sorry. This was all my fault. It was nothing you did or didn’t do. And no matter what you think or have to tell yourself, we were real. We weren't a lie. I mean that.”
I pull back as much as I can with his hands still planted on my spine and look up at him, taking in his fresh tears and his face in the moonlight. I know he means it. I just also know it doesn’t change anything.
He kisses me before I can tell him he’s forgiven. His tears have made his lips salty, but his kisses are exactly as I remember them, just flavored with all the bitter and the sweet that has happened since the first time he pushed my hair back from my face and kissed me in his bedroom years ago. I pull away, more overwhelmed than I care to admit, tears stinging behind my eyes.
“I’m sorry, " he says, and trails off, looking at me as if to gauge if I am going to break into a sprint or not.
“Why?” I say, my voice small, not nearly as powerful as I intended it to come out, and he knows I am not asking about tonight. That I am not asking this kiss or his words or his tears. We’re both struck still by the silence. And I realize, I don’t want to hear the answer.
So, I kiss him again, falling into him like I’m exhausted, because I am. Exhausted from carrying all the hurt and all the questions all alone all this time as I have been. Tired from pretending I'm ok even though I didn’t deal. Like I don’t care, like I didn’t love him with everything I had. I try to tell him that, all of that, in this kiss, my hands finding a brace against the solid wall of his chest, his arms wrapped tight around me almost to the point of breaking. After awhile we pull away simultaneously, panting and wild eyed. I know, more than I have never known anything in my entire life, that I have to get out of there right now. Because I cannot hold on to myself much longer.
“I need to go.”
“You shouldn’t be driving.”
“You’ve been drinking. And it’s late.”
“I need to go.”
“Are you sure?”
“I need to go.” He sighs above my head.
“I want you to stay.”
“I can’t. I need to go.”
“If I begged would you stay?”
“I need to go.”
Resigned, he moves me back towards the car, my legs seeming unwilling to cooperate with me, and closes the door after I am settled in.
I pull off and make it all of two feet before my body collapses in on itself, sobs rushing up from the pit of my stomach, slumping me over the steering wheel. I barely slam on brakes before I run into the gate.
I am still crying when he makes it to the car, opening the door and reaching across me to put the car in park and undo my seatbelt. He scoops me out of the car like I am nothing, bracing my violently shaking body with his.
I am ashamed. More than I have ever been about anything. I vowed I would never shed another tear over this man, let alone where he might see them. But I cannot stop fucking crying.
He’s holding me, rubbing my back and whispering into my hair, words I pretend not to hear because I can’t afford to hear anymore. I am emotionally bankrupt. I've spent way too much on us and the thereafter. My emotions are in the red. I can't give anymore to this, to these words, to whatever it is he's saying. I just don't have it.
Before long my pride takes over, my tears dry almost instantaneously and I right myself, pulling out of his embrace.
“I should go.”
“Are you sure?”
He walks me back to the car as he had just moments ago. He lingers like he wants to say something, and I stare straight ahead with both hands on the steering wheel, trying not to give him an opening and mentally begging him not to say another word I cannot bear the weight of. Finally, he closes the door with a sigh, stepping back and watching me pull off again, this time the tears flowing freely. It seems like it takes forever for the gates to open so I can drive through to freedom, but I am determined to leave this and move on to what’s next. Unlike the last time I walked away from him, I give my eyes to the rearview. He is standing there, his arms empty at his sides, watching me, hoping I turn back.
Instead, I drive forward, broken in ways I can’t explain, but ready for whatever comes next.
Part 3: Tied Up