After passing each other twice, I noticed a vague resemblance to your profile picture online. There were ten seconds left on the crosswalk when a car turning aggressively left honked at us. We stared hard at each other. With two seconds left, you grabbed my arm and pulled me out of traffic, walking on the sidewalk closest to the cars. You wore a leather jacket, and with each deliberative step I caught a whiff of Armani Black cologne.
I heard myself start narrativizing the story we would tell the twins. This is the day we met, I would say, searching for adjectives. Looking up, I saw a sliver of moon peep out from behind a coffee shop. It smelled like roast pork and the nervous scent trees get when it’s about to rain. My ears caught the thin melody of a somber violin. The sky thundered, but in a way that was exciting because I was not alone.
“Do you enjoy food?” you asked, once we made it to a stretch of quiet sidewalk.
“I’ve been eating food for as long as I can remember,” I said. “So I would say so.”
As we approached the ramen place, we realized that the restaurant was closed. My stomach growled. You glanced at your watch.
“We’re off to an awkward start,” you said. “How about a drink?”
There was a bar next to the restaurant, only it was a punk bar and the screeching could be heard down the block. I hoped part of the entertainment didn’t involve torture.
“Sure,” I said. “Only let’s sit outside.”
The tables were crammed together to create a sense of false intimacy. The bartender looked like he wanted to kill us for seating ourselves an hour before closing. He probably could have killed us with his nails alone, which were about nine inches long.
I ordered a ginger ale. You put down the cocktail menu and did the same.
Before I could turn my head slightly right to gaze at the side of your perfect nose and part of a heavily lashed eye, a man came up to me with a folder. He wore a threadbare sweater.
“I’m raising money,” the man said. He handed me the folder and began a soliloquy, hand over heart, as if he were reciting the national anthem.
I took the coffee-stained folder from his hands and flipped through the pages. You watched as I gingerly turned each sheaf. Most of it was indecipherable, but bits and pieces told his story. It appeared that his mission was to improve himself, though his life was in too chaotic a mess to describe in these pages.
You scratched the back of your head, expensive loafers tapping the floor. Outside was mostly empty now, save for the three of us and the storm churning above. My heart felt for the man. I gave him the cash I had on me, which I had forgotten was my subway money until after he left.
“What a red herring,” you said. The whites of your eyes were vibrant against skin so black it reflected blue. “You didn’t look like the type.”
You sipped your ginger ale with grace, patting your lips with a napkin.
“Home girl who gives a stranger money.”
I shrugged. The voices in the bar were so loud it made our space private outside. I had hoped that as more time passed, people recognized me for what I was less and less. I noticed you said “stranger” instead of homeless. This made you the type to not call a spade a spade. Water drops began to trickle into our cigarette tray, but you paid the rain no matter.
“I mean to ask you a serious question,” you asked, after we had finished our tepid soda. “The real meat and potatoes.”
It was raining hard now, it dripped down my blouse in cold spurts. I also had to pee, but was afraid of ruining the story, the one I would tell the twins, one boy and one girl. The first would be named Jude, after the patron saint of lost causes.
“So what’s your question?” I asked. We got up to stand under the awning, but the sheets of water were falling horizontally. The bouncer waved us in towards the bar, where we huddled close.
“Do you ever drink?” you asked.
“Not around strangers.”
“That was the meat. Here’s the potatoes. Are we still strangers?”
Three shots and one beer later, it’s like I’ve known you since the day I was born. We, hollered lyrics at the band, who were dressed as Beetlejuice characters. My scarf was tied around your head. You looked like a Rastafarian, missing only the beads and the marijuana. I was wearing your Rolex. This is when the music took a turn for the worst. The drums pounded into my ears as heads bobbed up and down. Underneath the strobe lights, the faces around me looked contorted and strained. I could see them only every third beat. The metal was heavy and I felt like I was having a seizure.
Stay positive, I told myself. We came very closer to moshing, on that first date, I would tell the twins. I hoped they would never feel the burn at the tall end of their twenties which involved having drinks with a stranger in a city with no family or friends to speak of, only a boss at a job that only liked you on Fridays. My story seemed unbearable sad. A toothless man slapped me on the back with encouragement. I coughed, the beer rising in my throat.
You stopped smiling.
“You’re in agony, yeah?” he said. “Whatcha thinking?”
“You don’t want to jump in that whale belly of a conversation too soon.”
You didn’t hear me the first time. Pulling out your wallet, you dropped a twenty in a collection hat going around the audience. You still didn’t hear me—so I had to yell “whale belly!” three times fast.
“I have three degrees from Stanford and can’t find a job as an elementary teacher,” you said loudly enough to make your voice crack. “Another whale of a story.”
“Really?” I asked. “What’d you study?”
“AI and electrical engineering. I want to code computer algorithms that read like poetry.”
“What do you want to teach?”
“Not an actual class,” you said. “More like mentor a group of kids that can code in a way to make computers more human.”
It sounded kind of freaky, but you got so worked up about it I would have ordered at least twelve robot poets if it kept you talking forever.
“At least you have a mission,” I said, once I felt the pressure to talk. “I write trashy little love stories sometimes.”
“Relish the pain. When you get older you realize you didn’t do that enough, yeah?”
“Aren’t you like two blinks older than me?”
You laughed, looking nothing more than the theoretical love child of Lenny Kravitz and Justin Timberlake. You slung your leather jacket across my shoulders. I pulled the rubber band out of my hair to let the fan blow it to its full length. I tied the band around a tuft of your hair, which puffed out around your head like cotton candy. Your face was slick with sweat—then you smiled. God, what a smile. Like you had swallowed the sun. You had a way of pausing for one extra second after each sentence, this time right after the yeah — as if you were tasting the words. It was thrilling. I was on the edge of my seat, or it was maybe because I really had to pee now.
We were close latitudinally, about five inches away from being wrapped up in each other’s arms. Right before the music stopped, I felt a buzz in your jacket pocket. I almost didn’t mention it, but had the animal tick when we hear a cell phone ring, whipping my head around to see if it was my own. I handed over the cell.
You glanced at the message which popped up on the screen. I looked towards the steamy windows, where somebody had drawn in a sad face. Crouching down, you grabbed your thighs for a second, like a wrestler about to renter the ring. You slipped the phone into your back pocket then straightened up.
“Whatcha looking at?” I asked.
You cringed, taking a step away from me. Like you expected me to pretend not to notice. Little did you know my big mouth was my crutch. The future imaginary twins, whom I was beginning to think of fondly, became paper dolls with no dimensions. The only hope I clung to was that I would at least make it into one of your stories. The one you told your computer genius friends. About the pretty Mexican girl you met once upon a time. We were on the verge of an inside joke, you would say—she was the one that got away.
“When I die,” you said, “I want to be in the lotus position. Just to prove this world hasn’t bested me.”
Your voice was wispy, as if you would vanish in a cloud of smoke at a second’s notice.
“So what were you reading?” I asked again.
“A text from,” you coughed, “Alice.”
My stomach dropped with familiar dread. “She sounds like a gossip columnist.”
“Or my ex-girlfriend.”
You handed me the phone.
I read the text, said the right things. At least I think I did, in this version of myself that looks back at past versions and pretends she has more dignity than I am maybe capable of. But the whole evening was blurred. The neon lights looked like they were crying, not so full they were about to burst.
Alice was brilliant, and articulate. I can assume now that you was the same. I could never marry you now, because I would be always thinking of Alice through the looking glass, a mythical creature who could arrest her ex-boyfriend with a true look of trauma in the middle of a punk bar during the second part of your life. I hope to be able to traumatize someone like that one day. The past rarely stays put. In reality, it’s written in every step you take.
“You were my short story. And I’m looking for an epic.”
This was Alice’s last line. I wrote that one down, for later, and it has never left me.
Now this is the part of the story when the music stops, my ears ring, and the lights come on—exposing the cheap furniture, sticky curtains. The part where we have nowhere to look other than ourselves.
A teacher once told me there was no point in going through so much pain if you couldn’t use it as tinder for your stories. What about those twists and turns, those could have beens? Pain sometimes supersedes nothing at all, which is why sometimes I have to look back to move forward.
What if instead of an ending, it went something like this: I left the punk bar, went to go pee, met a guy, forgot his name, forgot my own name, and then was born again?