Whenever I tell this story, I always start with the bleakness, the colorless hollow into which he might very well fade away. The words change depending on my audience, but when the reel plays in my mind, I always see the same film…
He repeated the words—have a great day… I love you, too—and put the phone down. Arranging his desk under a distant gaze, his hands followed along the unseen tracks of well-tread ritual marking the start of his evening and her morning. Before, he might have paused for a moment to enjoy the afterglow from these conversations, but his mind remained absent, a quiet mercy. A few minutes had passed before he realized he still sat behind the desk. He rose, pushing the chair into its place.
He had made plans to see colleagues this evening. Though he could hardly envision mingling with light friends on a routinely dismal night such as this, he continued through the forms of social obligation. As his hands buttoned his shirt and spritzed cologne on his neck and wrists, his eyes blinked yet remained fixated on a far-off point. In lucid moments, he wondered what that point represented. The image to which his mind returned, again and again, was that of an offramp of the highway, passed by in the night, henceforth unrecoverable. His eyes gazed into the anonymous headlights of oncoming cars, swelling and blinking out. Years before, he had accepted that to drive this infinite road was simply his lot in life; he would continue until this metaphorical vehicle ran out of fuel or otherwise became undrivable, but his driving truth stood that the sands in his hourglass hemorrhaged what remained of his life.
As he laced his shoes, he acknowledged that he was not, in fact, unhappy. When asked to characterize his feeling at the time, he would describe himself as perfectly fine. When asked to describe his feelings for her, he would smile to himself and repeat that he had loved her more than any other in this life. And as he repeated the words, he believed. He had injected new life into their relationship time and time again. Whether from fear, affection, or sheer stubbornness, none could say—but he refused to let their ruined love rest. Yet, like the misguided work of necromantic grief, reanimating the dead may set the form in motion once more, but the spark of the soul remains lost forever.
Ready for the night, he stepped out the door. He turned and pressed his forehead against the frame as his hands brought the key to the lock. He breathed his shadows out and locked the door, smiling softly. As the lock clicked, his eyes ignited with the mischievous light his colleagues had come to recognize as an early sign of a memorable night.
They met by the river, at a collection of shipping containers converted into vendor stands. One colleague—now shaded in memory as the embodiment of Nostalgia—had organized the night out to soak in the time away from his wife and children, embracing the frenetic energy pulsing with the beat of bass-driven music. The other colleague—Heartbreak— had discovered his partner in a predictable case of infidelity months before and insisted on leaning into any social outing available to nominally find a new beau; ultimately, however, nights with Heartbreak always led to his longing for his previous partner.
He kept the evening grounded in the present, highlighting the timeless music for Nostalgia and drawing potential candidates for Heartbreak into conversation. As time passed, however, his efforts had less effect, and old habits appeared primed to set in.
His final effort to salvage momentum from the evening came with a proposal to change their venue. He remembered a quiet piano bar set above the street in an old quarter of the city. Upon entering the bar with his colleagues, the place was just as he had recalled, with a local pianist tinkling the final notes of Clair de Lune as they entered. He sat with Nostalgia and Heartbreak, who both seemed far beyond their comfort in an environment that prioritized the vibrance of experience over the expedience by which one could compromise their sobriety. He ordered drinks quickly to ensure that timely absinthe washed out any pause in the stark venue change.
Heartbreak began to notice features in the women of the bar that reminded him of his forsaken lover. Across the six stools at the bar, individual women had occupied seats three and five before five slid to four to more closely speak with three. And into the void stepped Six.
At first her entrance felt innocuous enough, another inaccessible element of the flattened background. Nostalgia reminisced about the women he had met in bars such as these. At the same time, Heartbreak mumbled and fumbled with his phone to type a message he would, again, not send. With the piano now singing out Brahms, the two streams of speech harmonized with the melody played out by the pianist. Three and four engaged in expressive conversation. Other bargoers leaned and reeled, laughed and gestured, suddenly noticed the masterful pianist and, as quickly, forgot. The colorful host flitted between tables and barstools to add a personal accent for the guest experience. Through this menagerie of movement, Six remained still, as if the world moved in fast motion around her.
Heartbreak had begun to cry. Nostalgia embraced him and offered to walk him home. The two stood and seemingly merged into one form as they ambled to the stairs to venture out from the piano bar. In their absence, the silence left at the table felt like a guest itself. For a long time, he sat and let the music carry him through time as he became reacquainted with the questions that attending to Nostalgia and Heartbreak had allowed him to neglect. Still, absinthe dulled the edges, and he smiled through faded eyes at the blurring scene.
The clock reached closing time. He moved to the bar to pay for the table, still ensconced in his absinthe sanctuary when he sidled up alongside Six. The colorful host swooped from table to table, barstool to barstool, as the end of the night closed in on the patrons. He let his loose gaze follow the host until his eyes stopped on Six. If she had moved, her motion had not registered under his unsober detection. He waited for the host to return but felt poleaxed by the depth in Six’s dark, unblinking eyes. A glass chalice sat before her and was not full, but he had not seen her move to drink from it. Perhaps because the absinthe had sufficiently silenced inhibitions, he broke her trance with a few clumsy words.
When two hours later, he and Six—Joy, it turns out—hadn’t moved from where they were at closing time, he brushed the strands that had fallen across her eyes. As his hand curled behind her ear, she held his hand against her cheek and sank into his palm with closed eyes. Minutes later, her eyes opened and found his. As they gazed into each other, he realized he had only just begun to understand the depths that those dark eyes could hold, carried away in the tide. Wordlessly, they stood, and he pushed her barstool in behind her as she led him to the stairs.
They stepped out into the night, the light of the full moon guiding their way...
The older two smirked at each and lightly rolled their eyes, but the littlest one clapped her hands at the far side of the table. Looking up at her mother, she asked, “So that’s how you two met?”
Joy smirked back at our daughter with the same expression that the kids had learned from her. “Exactly, and—” with those deep, warm eyes shifting across to me, “—and couldn’t be happier.”