The Bar Patron and the Young Lady

[author’s note: I wanted to see if I could write something tonight without agonizing over every detail, something that just came out. I was flailing about for inspiration when the Puddinette told me that while playing Ken and Barbie today our daughter said, “I like playing boyfriend and girlfriend, Mommy, except when they break up”. I chuckled about that for a few minutes and then produced the following.]

The man sitting on the worn bar stool signaled the bartender across the way to bring him another. He raised his hands the way a man embellishing a grand fish tale would and mouthed the words “tall one”. The bartender nodded and reached into the glass cooler. The patron looked away, beginning a survey of the crowded room.

To his left, a young couple sat across from each other, both nursing glasses half full or better. He had light brown hair, full the way they were keeping it nowadays, and all combed into a bowl around his head. Hers was darker, shoulder length, with just a touch of curl.

They weren’t talking. The air between them was burdened with finality; it might as well have been soundproof.

With a shrug, he took a wallet from the breast pocket of his smokey suit jacket, placed two bills on the table, and stood up. He plucked his overcoat from his chair and folded it over his arm. Turned away, looked back, hesitated. The weight between the pair slipped. In that one moment hung the grimmest shred of hope. He had a finger of scotch left and something unsaid written plainly on his face.

But rather than give those words voice, he picked the tumbler up from the table, drained the amber liquid, and with it her last fleeting hope.  He set the glass down and walked out in silence.

She sat, unmoving, for minutes after his departure. Her own glass of wine sat ignored. Once, it was complex, challenging, brimming with subtle flavors. It was dead-tasting now, ashen. Her hand moved, finally, toward her phone on the table. Her fingers traced it, unsure about picking it up. Picking up would mean telling someone, and she ached to do it, to share the grief that was just this second blossoming within, like the first budding of spring. But she couldn’t, not yet. Saying the words out loud would make it real, final.

He was finished with her. She could barely think it. Nine months of her life together with a man she was certain the Fates had made just for her, all wasted. Nothing now but once fond memories that had become acid in a heartbeat. The night when they sat in the back of her father’s grocery and talked until 3 in the morning. The brightness in his eyes when he’d won the giant stuffed rabbit for her throwing ping pong balls at the fall carnival. They made her feel empty inside, now, cheated. Other memories too, not just the frozen moments of their experience, but of him, them, together. The way he twined the curls of her hair around his finger, the way his hands fit in the small of her back when she leaned into him and placed her head against his shoulder. The scent of him in his shirts. She would never love those things about someone else again, not the way she loved them about him.

He said it wasn’t her, it was him, because that’s what you do. He paid for the drinks, because he always did. He finished his neat scotch and left her sitting alone. He didn’t know he took her heart with him. He probably never would.

She picked up the phone and dialed.

The bar patron turned back to the tall beer he hadn’t seen delivered. He took a long pull from the curved glass, set it down, and laid his own money on the bar. After slipping from his stool, he walked home, climbed into bed with his sleeping wife, and whispered, glad his heart was safe with her.

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