Everyone else had left an hour ago. The only reason she was still there was because she’d promised him a ride back to the station. And although she was ready to call it a night, she was much too polite to say a word. They had been talking, but the conversation had become more trivial, the increased banality correlating almost directly to the number of bourbons he’d consumed.
The bar was the kind of place in the city that didn’t attract many locals, not with the club scene being so much further West. With its bizarre, kitschy American diner vibe, it seemed to want to draw in tourists, but tourists didn’t typically venture this far East. The bar didn’t even have a name, only an address attached to the door in crooked numbers; an address that was almost identical to the couple of office towers that expunged a variety of worker bees every lunch and evening, and a fraction of them ended up here daily.
So it ended up being the sort of place that was chronically closer to empty than full, but still remained alive with a modest energy that didn’t demand much attention to sustain.
He’d seen her in the office on his inaugural day at the new job. Previously, he’d worked across the city in a shinier office tower, but quit because he needed a change. He was the first one from his pod to make it to the meeting in the boardroom across the hall (how does the new guy manage to be the first one to a meeting?), and she was already in the room, laying some innocuous papers across one end of the big conference table. She wore a midnight blue pencil skirt and some vintage styled, vanilla ice cream-colored top that had pleating down the front, and little keyholes on the cuffs of the shortened sleeves. She was stunning, and he always appreciated a nice top. Before either of them said a word however, another head popped into the room, a woman whose only business was to inform the girl that her team was actually meeting in Conference Room Seventeen instead. “Sorry,” she said, and began collecting her papers back into a manila folder.
She smiled at the new guy on her way out. That “Sorry” was nearly the only thing that rattled through his head during the day’s meeting. And for much of the next three weeks too, because he didn’t see her again until his fourth week on the job. As soon as the elevator doors slid apart he recognized her. It was easy. She was wearing the same clothes, prompting him to begin building up in his head the idea of this girl out of time, or like a heavenly apparition, maybe? They made eye contact, though she was in the middle of a conversation with another girl. She gave him the kind of mask-like look that made it clear he didn’t leave as much of an impression. Exiting the elevator on the very next floor, her careless, teacup-like elbow accidentally brushed into his arm. “Sorry,” she said once again before disappearing. But she didn’t disappear for quite so long this time.
It was that same evening after work that he’d seen her next. At the bar with no name. She was across the room, sharing the seat with nothing more than a cloud of introverted quietness, but when she noticed him she waved him over, and when she smiled it was with everything she had. Her face looked different; not anomalous, but new. He didn’t know if it was just the way light seemed to fill certain spaces or if there was some otherworldly countenance at play, but her features — though unmistakable — seemed to fluctuate depending on if she was in that office boardroom, on the elevator, in the back of this bar, or wherever they might cross paths next. Like her face was indecisive about whether her eyes wanted to be the most prominent component, or her cheekbones, her lips, or the curl of her ears.
They became friends; there was no secret modus operandi at play. A married man, after all, can be drawn to a beautiful married woman without the need to pursue anything more than friendship. Don’t most people prefer being in the presence of beauty, rather than the alternative? There weren’t any games, maybe some harmless flirting, but they both returned to their families at the end of every day; he to his wife and three children; her to her husband of only two years. She talked about her husband a lot, clearly head over heels in love. Still, he looked for cracks — Did she ever have regrets? Did they both want different things in their relationship, but were too afraid to voice their desires? — even though he knew there would never be an opening wide enough to justify creating a potential problem involving so many people.
In his mind he played out the scenarios. He couldn’t help being drawn to her so. That surreptitiously-splintered smile. The vulnerability of that solicitude within unsteady eyes. He envisioned movies and fairy tales, and considered how make-believe worlds only ever wanted to simply be believed. He imagined horrible scenarios too, where good people actually got hurt, or died.
But the one thought he couldn’t shake from his mind was this: if he and she had known one another when they were younger, his life might have been irrevocably and extraordinarily altered. He held onto that thought so strongly, it was beginning to feel like something that was just barely out of his reach.
He knew most all of her favorites by now: the food, the music, the books, the animals, the jokes, the films, the podcasts. He knew her fears too, but likely just the surface fears and not the real ones.
But they were still strangers, really. Unless someone is sharing a world with someone else, then a stranger they will mostly remain. The intimacy of home life, and those behind-doors tendencies could never be fully grasped by strangers. The infinite ways in which lovers need lovers. The availability of shoulders and ears in times of need. None of that existed here. All that applied were the ways in which barely-known people acted around others, how they needed the company in ways they were not aware of. Like pieces of that same thing that don’t even know it. How a picked apple needs a tree, or a tree might need the apple.
She made him lonely, and he sometimes wondered if he made her feel a bit lonelier too. And within that loneliness existed the possibility of something that could have been.
If he was honest with himself, there were moments when he didn’t enjoy his time spent with her. She had tendencies to go on a bit too long about subjects he had very little interest in. But those slipped into his selfish scenarios too; if they’d known one another when they were younger, then it stands to reason she would have assimilated much of his knowledge and many of his interests, and vice versa.
Once, he asked her what she was like in high school. What he envisioned, he thought obvious: homecoming queen; popular like the stars at nighttime; her initials scribbled inside boys’ notebooks and carved into trees. But she admitted to being a bit more of a wallflower. Unconfident. Insecure. She hated her teeth and loved to dance, and didn’t want anyone seeing either. She cried basically all the time. At parties. At home. She cried for help, but no one ever heard or paid attention. And there were certainly never any boyfriends in sight.
He told her he didn’t believe any of that. She had to have been perfect, because how else could that sad, unsure girl have blossomed into this wonderful creature he was lucky enough to have uncovered?
Her wandering eyes stopped to thank him, though with an undetected skepticism. While she was in the midst of considering the limits of friendship, maybe even questioning her own reasons for staying out at the bar after work so late and so often, he was preoccupied with a misplaced nostalgia. Maybe even some animosity toward fate’s unjust hand.
He regretted his own bygone decisions, made in earnest so long ago.
He yearned for a different set of youthful dreams; those dreams he’d once been content with now seemed ludicrous.
He thought about every calculated kiss and conquered courtship, and now considered them wasted moments.
And still, the more he knew her, the more forlorn he became.
Eight months ago, they sat together for the first time. From there, once a week, they continued to sit together, not really ever picking up where they left off because they tended to talk about many of the same subjects over and over again. An hour ago, the rest of the bar had cleared, and she’d simply been waiting for a sign that he was ready to leave.
He was never ready to leave.
“Come on,” she said with finality. “We’re later than usual. My husband’s probably wondering what’s taking me.” Her phone had been on the table the entire evening, and it hadn’t buzzed or bleeped once. Not once.
There was a lump in his throat. “You could text him. Let him know you’ll be a bit longer?”
She placed a palm on her phone, then warily spun it around on the Formica tabletop.
“He never checks his phone,” she says. “I’m trying my best to not be so phone-dependant myself. He tells me it’s actually very liberating.”
She laughs a slight laugh, just for herself. “Not really.”
How does he say the one thing he wants to say without sounding crazy? I wish I knew you years ago, he thought. Nope. Too ambiguous. Maybe a bit creepy. I’m not really unhappy but I am sort of unhappy and don’t I deserve to be happy? Too whiny. She’d never again agree to meet him after work if he said something like that.
There was a framed picture above the bar of a man who used to work there, but had died some years before. Like the bar itself, the man’s photo did not have a name attached to it either.
He couldn’t take his eyes off that photo, or pull himself away from the tendrils of sad thoughts.
“Yeah,” he ultimately said. “I think maybe it is time to go.”
They barely spoke during the drive to the station. That lump in his throat feeling bigger. She stole glances at him. His stark white shirt appeared fluorescent amidst the moon and street lights, making it easy to take note of the wetness that streamed from his cheek to his collar.
He didn’t show up at work the following week. The sudden, precipitous need for change had found him yet again. Sometimes, the thought of where he might have found himself had crossed her mind, but mostly, she wondered with some degree of melancholy whatever might have been had they crossed paths some other time and place.