A year from now, she’d be married. She’d be curled up in bed with a stranger and a glass of champagne and the title of the next year as a crown atop her head. A year from now she’d be smiling and happy and loved. She’d have a stable job, a house with two stories, a stranger and a glass of champagne.
She told herself this, with a hand wrapped around a cold glass. Whiskey, not champagne, but at least she had the crowd of strangers around her, like curtains on a stage, and her at the bar in her costume of a woman alone on New Years Eve.
He was a villain, a victor, a side character. He was the man on the subway calling his wife, the boy on the playground laughing with his friends, the skater in a New York ice rink. He was the voice on the other side of the call, the mysterious love interest in the bookstore. He was the angry man at the corner of the street, the bully in high school. He was all these things and more, because to him life was but a story with countless empty roles to be filled. Today he was playing a man at the end of the bar, and nothing more. A drink, a laugh, a kiss, and this play would be over and on to the next one tomorrow. A drink, a laugh, a kiss and the year would end.
Her hand, dripping in her lap. Condensation in a warm, bubbling room, like the froth on a wave lapping at the cliffside, rocks and pebbles crashing through the water - water eroding the beach, water eroding the rocks, water eroding the woman’s life. Water in the form of glass and whiskey and hate and lips. Water in the form of friends and family and loss. She was a pebble in a river, a bump in the rapids, and the water simply poured over her, indifferent to her cries and calls for help. And a hand, like a warm ray of sunshine, dripping with the harsh waters of life, lifted out from those fiery rapids, reached up to the sky, and held the stars at the tip of her fingertips.
A drink, a laugh, a kiss. The play was winding down, ten seconds to the curtain call, ten seconds til his role was done, a line or two, a step or three, a drink, a laugh, a kiss. A drink. A laugh. He slammed the glass down on the wood, slick with years of shots and spills and tears and characters whose job it was to rub down the bar for the play this year. A drink, a laugh, a kiss. A woman sat next to him. She had hair like wild grass in the always empty patch of land just off the freeway, a nose like a crooked mountain, cheeks red and patchy. She had a mole on the side of her neck and eyebrows as thin as twigs. Her eyelashes were long and curved, like antennae on butterflies and he remembered, when he was little, in a role long before his own, his mom would brush her eyelashes up against his, and call it a butterfly kiss.
Does the laugh come before or after the kiss?
He liked the way her fingers slid over the glass in front of her, drew words in the dark of the bar, poetry that disappeared in the heat of the night.
When she left that night, she just wanted to escape the loneliness of her apartment, the droning of the television, the cheers from the streets down below. She wanted to drown in the happiness around her, so she went to the bar. She went to the place thick with the choking smell of laughter, the stench of happiness and love and excitement. She could go anywhere in the city and smell it like death, like the plague, only she seemed to be immune. So she went to the bar to drown in the happiness wafting off of everyone around her - the bartender, the couple in the middle of the room, the friends making jokes in the corner, the man at the end of the bar.
She turned to look at him, eyes of hazel poppies in a field of raked dirt. An oasis of palm fronds and bright blues of resort pools. Hands in his lap like the branches of a tree, so long she almost expected the fingers to grow out and up and wrap around her like ropes. A face like gravel, with dips where feet had shaken the pebbles loose. A broken nose, like hers. Five seconds in the rest of her life.
“Hi.” His last bit of dialogue in the play.
“Hey.” She slouched over her empty glass, looked side-long at him, lifted, tilted her face. Years went by in the minutes they existed, and the whole time she was wondering what made strangers so different, blank slates, gaps in the progression of time, canvases to paint a lifetime on. A car passing by carries a family of love, hope, hate, and tragedy. A light in each window of a skyscraper is a poem, a song, a story. We exist in our separateness all the same, all knitted together.
And the room around them bubbled like water to a peak, a heat so vividly bright, it threatened to explode before its cue.
He was wondering when his role would expire, when his life would reveal its permanence. Because he was tired of always constantly being something. He was tired of having cues, lines, roles, costumes. A laugh, a kiss, a drink. He would study butterflies in Brazil, soil in Argentina, literature in Britain, food in Paris. He would carry people through burning buildings, coax a baby out of it’s cage, raise a wolf from a dog, and yet he would always remain the same stagnant character. And a drink, a laugh, a kiss would change nothing, but he could hope that he might find a final role next year.
The room chanting, characters with a goal, separateness finally pulled together, strands of yarn pulled tight if only for a few more seconds, pulled tight for a kiss and then let go. And the synchronization of the night, she thought, is what makes a stranger so alluring.
Her hands drifted up and along the man’s jaw, traveled to the back of his head. She smiled, he laughed. Breath smelling like alcohol and sadness and loss and loneliness. A laugh, a smile, a kiss. They pulled like magnets together, and connected at the last second of the year in a kiss like two currents twisting together for a moment before passing each other by. And piano riffs sounded from the orchestra bowl at the edge of the stage, and the audience erupted in applause.
For a moment, they seemed to be synched. Eyes closed, breathing slow, together in the same story for a moment, just before finding their own peace.