Sarah wished that she hadn’t been completely broken when she met Chris. If only he’d come into her life seven or eight years earlier, he would have seen her at her best, at her peak. Well, what she was certain now had been her final peak. Now she was sliding into decrepitude at an alarming rate, much faster than she’d feared – and she’d feared something awful. Every day a new part of her body ached, while all the previous aches remained, and some even worsened. Also, her skin seemed to be loosening, as if preparing to make room for more bones or muscles, when she knew quite well there would be no new bones or muscles. Perhaps she was becoming a giant change purse. She had a sudden image of herself walking up and down the city streets, kindly feeding the meters for strangers from her many pockets of flab, annoying and disgusting the parking enforcement officials who rushed to get ahead of her. At least her life would have some purpose after Chris left her. For certainly he would leave her. What use could he have for an aging, aching mound of flab? If only I’d met him when I was twenty-six, she thought. That was a good year for me. Of course, then he was only fourteen, but we would have managed somehow. I could have picked him up from school and helped him with his algebra.
It wasn’t simply that Sarah believed she had physically become something of a mess – a collection of aches vaguely resembling human form – but emotionally she’d been drained, emptied, and had nothing to give. Chris surely could see that. Right? Too many shitty relationships, too many shitty jobs, too many parking tickets, too many nights crying had left her numb (on her best days) or distraught (all the other days), and she was now beyond faking it, at least for more than a few hours at a time.
She had been able to fake it the night she met Chris. It was a Thursday, and she was out drinking by herself, something she said she rarely did, but something she did every single Thursday. Her favorite bar, The Ragged Turtle, had a Thursday evening special, and the drinks were half off. And it wasn’t the alcohol that gave her an exaggerated sense of confidence, for she’d only just arrived (maybe one drink in) when she saw Chris. Or, rather, when Chris bumped into her. Okay, no, she corrected, she must have been two drinks in, because she was getting up to pee when they met. And no, he didn’t bump into her, truth be told, she bumped into him as she struggled off her bar stool in the direction of the toilet. Something she needed to do after one drink, but always waited until she’d had two, because the bathroom was less than pleasant and she did her best to limit the number of trips she took. So when she had to go, she really had to go. And when she bumped into him, she did not say “Excuse me” or “Pardon” or “Sorry.” She said “Cocksucker.”
Still, she must have been doing something right, projecting an air of confidence, for he introduced himself when she returned from the bathroom. Had he been waiting for her? He’d taken the stool beside the one where her next drink waited for her, a drink she didn’t recall ordering. Had he ordered it for her? Damn presumptuous, and damn nice of him, she thought. And she brought him home with her. That is, after two or three more drinks, and then some water and conversation to give her time to sober up and to learn whether he was just a pretty face or if he’d be someone worth waking up next to. He held the door open for her when they left the bar. That was a good sign. But now she felt he’ll soon be closing the door on her. It had been two weeks, and she was sure that any bit of fun she could claim to be must have worn out by then. He must see the real me now, the me that is not intriguing or mysterious, the me that burps and farts and whines and changes lanes without signaling, the me that forgets to pay bills on time, the me that dyes her hair not quite often enough to hide hints of grey, the me that wants to run over pedestrians who don’t cross the street quickly enough, the me that once did hit a bicyclist – just nicked him, really, but still. He’s going to find a younger version of me, which of course he should, and I’ll be upset for a month and will age more in that time, and will have to settle for a sad old married man who wants a fling with a slightly younger, slightly sadder woman, and that’s what I deserve because I hit that bicyclist and I’m a hideous crone with a temper. The problem was that Sarah really liked Chris. He was different from the other men she’d met at the bar, in as much as when she found him in her bed that first morning, she was happy. She didn’t rush him out the door with a dozen excuses and empty talk of a future encounter. Sarah wanted to stay in that bed with him for weeks, and actually called in sick to work, and didn’t even mind or worry that he didn’t need to do the same, but simply stayed there with her without notifying anyone. Sure, the thought crossed her mind that he was an unemployed drunk, but it also crossed her mind that he was independently wealthy – independent of work, a man without attachment, hers for the taking. For a brief moment she felt young and beautiful and exciting and just the sort of woman that this man had been searching all the bars of the city for. They fucked all morning.
It wasn’t long before her brain reminded her that she’s broken and fated to die alone at a bus stop (even though she rarely took public transportation). Her head was full of doom and gloom, which she recognized as Reality. Everything would be over soon enough, and maybe already was.
Chris wished he could have waited a year or two before meeting Sarah, for surely he’d have his shit together by then. Full-time employment was waiting for him just around the corner, he was certain of that, and within a year – maybe two, three at the most – he’d have paid off all his bills, have plenty of money in his savings account, be living in his own place, and be (not just appear to be) a stable individual. Then things would have a real chance of working out. As it was, Chris felt, it was only a matter of time before Sarah realized what a complete loser he was, that he was staying with a friend in a one-bedroom apartment, sleeping on his couch (the arrangement being that he had to be out of the apartment at least ten hours a day or start chipping in more for rent and utilities). She would find out that he hadn’t put his college degree to any sort of use, that he had put his dreams on hold for so long that they now seemed like the dreams of someone else, that he’d never managed to maintain a relationship longer than a few months (and that he’d never really wanted to), and that he might never become the person everyone had promised him he would be, and she would move on. There was no way a woman this beautiful, this funny, this exciting was going to remain with him. I’m not prepared for her, he thought, and she’s going to see that as soon as she’s sober.
That’s not what he thought when he met her, however, but the next night. When he met her, though he had just arrived at the bar, he was already a bit tipsy. The Ragged Turtle was only a few blocks from where he was staying, and it was cheaper to drink at home, so he had begun his drinking there. But the one thing he was allowing himself these days was a bit of music on Wednesday nights. That was country night at the bar, and the local bands that played were actually pretty good. And, more importantly, the women who went out for country night were eager for physical contact, eager to dance, eager to be found attractive. But when he entered the place, he heard a pop song on the jukebox, and there was no band on the small stage, not even any equipment that held the promise of a band playing soon. Chris made his way to the bar, to ask the bartender if the venue was no longer doing country night, when a woman knocked into him and called him a cocksucker, and he fell for her instantly. Here’s a girl who was not trying to make an impression, a girl who was not eager to be told she was attractive, a woman with confidence. He sat down on the stool next to the one she vacated, assuming she’d return soon, as she headed toward the bathrooms in the back. He ordered a drink, and when it arrived and he found the drink cost half as much as usual, and asked the bartender what the woman had been drinking, and ordered another for her. If she doesn’t come back, fuck it, I’ll drink it myself, he reasoned. And for several moments he thought that in fact she wasn’t coming back, that she had left through the back door and was stumbling outside, bumping into things and swearing at them. I hope she’s not driving, he thought. He had a sudden image of her bumping her car into things like telephone poles and storefronts and saying “Cocksucker.” But then there she was, beside him, staring at her drink and clearly wondering if she’d ordered it. She then turned to him and said, “You’re cute.” When was the last time a woman had called him cute? When was the last time a woman had given him any compliments at all? And when was the last time he felt he deserved such a compliment? “My name is Chris,” he told her.
Chris was not one of those drunks who believes himself to be charming and witty and eloquent, but he must have managed to bring off at least a verisimilitude of those qualities, for Sarah, as she introduced herself, remained by his side for the span of two more drinks. He had to call it a night after that, for even with the drinks being half-priced he couldn’t afford to buy any more. Sarah agreed that they should switch to water to sober up before hitting the road, and then something rather shocking occurred – Sarah asked him to come home with her. His brain had been hard at work on solving the puzzle of how he could continue the night without money and without taking her to his place, which wasn’t even his place, the sight of which would have counteracted any progress he’d made, eliminated any interest she might have in him. “We have to fuck quietly here on the couch because my roommate has to be up early for work” is not a sentence that is going to make a grown woman swoon. He had taken other women there, and did utter similar lines to them, but there was something special about this one, and he felt he needed to offer a bit more. But what? But how? While he struggled to find an answer, she solved the problem for him with her astounding and glorious suggestion that he go home with her. She didn’t even ask where his car was (which was good, as he didn’t have one at the moment), and maybe that was because he held the door for her as they exited the bar. She seemed pleased, and he wanted to do that again with the door to her car, but of course she was driving, and his chivalry was met with pleasant laughter.
In the morning, he was shocked to find himself still in her bed. She hadn’t kicked him out, and she seemed in no hurry to do so now. In fact, she called her office and said she wouldn’t be in, and then turned and kissed him. That morning, she was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen or even hoped to see. What had he done to deserve this amazing woman? Nothing. Nothing at all, he realized. And she’s going to realize that herself soon enough, and so Chris suggested they open a bottle of wine. I have to keep her drunk, Chris decided. It’s the only way she’ll continue to find me interesting. The trick will be keeping her drunk for a year or two, the time I need to really pull myself together and be the man her inebriation has caused her to believe I am.
I am going to fail. There was no way to achieve what was needed, and he recognized it. His brain told him as much. Even drunk, his brain continued to maintain its sad grasp on Reality. I am going to lose her. Everything would be over soon enough, and maybe already was.
Gil opened The Ragged Turtle nearly four years before Sarah and Chris met, and in that time hadn’t earned enough money that he could stop taking bartending shifts himself. Besides, he liked it, tending bar, no matter how much he complained to his wife about it. And she liked the stories he’d tell her of the customers, no matter how much she complained about her lonely evenings. “Tell me again about that goofy couple that met there,” she asked him, in part because she knew the request would please him, and partly because Gil often got excited himself when he talked about other people hooking up and she was working herself up to a mood.
“I didn’t think those two would ever meet,” he began, the way he always began this one. “He came in on Wednesdays, for country night. And she came on Thursdays, for cheap drink night. But one week he got his days mixed up.” His wife put her arms around him and kissed his neck, and Gil decided he could finish his story later.
(Copyright 2018 Michael Doherty)
(Note: I wrote the first section of this story while at work on March 20th, as well as notes for the second and last sections. A crew member had banged his head that day, and I was sent to the hospital with him and wrote most of that section in the waiting room. I then started working on the second and third sections on the 21st, and finished the story today.)