We drink because we can’t speak, laugh to communicate, stare so our eyes have focus when thoughts and tongues are weary. Every now and then, my companion strokes the back of my hand. I toast her but say nothing, applaud without clapping, promise the world as I fear what she offers in trade.
Kristan makes a brutal lover like a symphony. How subtle her timbre and tone, how intense her passion – dark and dissolving as her eyes, yet luminous like the lit candle her hair burns when light hits it right. Yet when the harsh song declines, so too the tender. She licks her lips as if to wipe away the taste of a final note. “I think I’ve found my context,” she swears. She’s defining me from my stories, my infidelities. “I have to admit, I’m intrigued. You make the trite seem overwhelming.”
“Perhaps you’re right. So, where do we go from here?”
“Another story?” she says. “Another white line where there was an open wound?”
I part my lips to speak but say nothing. I give a tired shake of the head and a long exhale.
“No more stories?” she says, her tone alluringly indignant.
I shrug. “Not now. I’m still recovering.”
“These things aren’t easy to talk about.”
“Of course not,” she chides. “If they were easy, you’d be shallow, either because you haven’t been hurt and don’t understand the feeling or because you’ve grown detached from those very truths that make you human. What a sad creature you’d be: unable to reflect, to grieve or cry. I’d find you impossible to bear.” She sips her liquor calmly, consciously, eyes staring up over the rim of the glass like those of a serpent. When she pushes her rum and cola aside, she smiles. “Good stories cause the teller to ache. It means they’re true, that they’re profound and profoundly real like philosophies of seaside cliffs crumbling into the ocean. You want to be real, don’t you?”
“Even if it means you fall apart in moments of weakness?”
Again, I nod.
“Good. Do you want to talk? It’d be a shame to waste the time we’ve spent.”
She’s right, of course. What good am I if I’m too scared to spend one night in a haunted house, making love to ghosts? “Don’t worry,” I promise. “I’ll talk. Just not now. I need a break. Give me time. Why don’t you talk for a while?”
“I’m not a storyteller,” she replies, though she says it with such a coquettish turn of the lips that I know she’s already searching for a thread to lead her into the tapestry she’ll weave. “I’m an observer.”
“So, share your observations.”
“I only hope you’ll see what I see if I do.”
“You give. I’ll do my best.”
Her smile turns serious as if she’s about to whisper infinite evil. Her voice harbors the same intensity. “I’ve observed this,” she says in slow, dragging note. “You keep talking about love, about what it is and what it means.”
“What it means to me.”
“What it means to everyone. There are so many definitions – all valuable, all accurate in their ways. You describe it as a process. That’s so pragmatic, so American. Still, I’d bet the real answer’s nothing so simple. Remember, different people love in different ways. Some might seem strange and others sinister, but all are the same in their moment, their condition.”
“So, how do you define it?”
“I don’t. As I said, I make observations. The best I can do is share one of those.”
“A great adventure on the high seas?”
“In its way.”
“Or just a humble tryst between dreaming lovers?”
“That too, I think.”
“So, tell me. What is it really?”
“Just something I took note of once. I might’ve read about it in the newspaper or heard it from a friend. Maybe I was there when it happened. Or after, as it moved toward its end. Not that it matters. Where it comes from isn’t as important as where you take it.”
“Good,” she says. “Then I’ll tell you about the lonely man who loved.”
The phrase conjures up images of a shadow-filled mystery or romance, maybe a combination of the two. Or something more. Kawabata could’ve written it, or Mishima. I can hear the Japanese masters in their simple, clear-cut prose easing into the mind of a poor wretch, explaining how he, the unloved, continued to love in spite of his nature and a world that disowned him.
I mention this, and Kristan laughs as if scorning both masters for their misguided interpretations of her story, or else me for mine. “I don’t know if this fits either description,” she says, waving me off to keep me from arguing. “What I’m telling you isn’t about rightness, and it isn’t about collapse. Laugh if you want. Cry if you can’t help it. It doesn’t matter. Just listen. Anything else is only a distraction.”
“Whatever you say. So, what’s it about?”
“Don’t ask questions. I can’t answer them.”
“What if I don’t understand?”
“You will … eventually.”
Shaking my head, I mumble, “You can’t even tell me what it’s about?”
“Sure,” she says. “It’s about the lonely man who loved.” She shows the most ruthless smile, warning me not to push any further.
“All right. You’ve got my attention.”
She taunts me with a wink of her left eye. I sense movement under the table. It’s as though she’s shuffling her legs, changing their position or parting to reveal a secret darkness. Thoughts of what I can’t see down there in blackest barroom shadows distract me for an instant. It’s during that infatuated pause Kristan begins her serenade: “A man walks into his favorite restaurant. He’s not quite middle-aged, but in his thirties. His hair’s starting to recede and his eyes have long since been locked into the gray of routine. It’s true he’s soft around the waist, but not so much as to be unattractive. He’s tired, also. It’s visible in his lazy walk, the way he sort of slumps over even when he’s standing up straight. You’d have to be pretty observant to see that, or to see him for that matter. He doesn’t exactly stand out in a crowd. He doesn’t even stand out in a pair. I guess the one word that would describe him is ‘invisible.’ He’s the kind of man you see but never see, like an old sign on a familiar road. You just move on past without stopping to read the words.”
I nod to show her I know the type.
“So this invisible man – this tired, harmless man – walks into his favorite restaurant. He follows obediently as the waitress shows him to his table. Then he slides his hand into his coat pocket, pulls out a revolver, and unloads half a dozen shots into that poor woman. She suspects nothing and doesn’t have a chance to save herself. The first bullet hits its mark, piercing the back of her head. It kills her straightaway. The guy doesn’t need to fire another shot, but he keeps on squeezing the trigger, rocking her lifeless body three times before it hits the ground and twice after. It’s as if he’s caught in the rapture of a strange passion that he’s never felt and will never feel again. It’s a lone moment of life in a lifeless ghost, and it’s during that break from time that everyone finally sees him. After the first shot, all eyes point his way. It doesn’t last. Folks turn away like people do when they’re afraid. But when they turn back, they take in every detail. They consume his image with the sickening hunger of crowds. They bear witness to his eyes, his lips, the arc of his neck, his head slung low like a crucified saint’s, though cocked ever so slightly to the left. It’s not the invisible patron before them. The man they see is a different sort. He has sadness about him and harbors a maniacal grin.”
“That’s ghastly,” I say, interrupting her so I might catch my breath.
“Isn’t it?” she replies.
“How does a man change like that?”
My companion doesn’t answer. “This image, gruesome and disturbing – as the face of death often is – fades right before their eyes. That’s the really terrifying part. It shocks them most to see the guy become himself again. It’s as though the demon they’re watching vanishes into vapors. There’s only emptiness where the invisible assassin stands. He’s present but no longer there.”
She stops, studying my reaction. She finds discord, confusion, questions tactfully left unasked. When she’s certain I won’t disturb the narrative, she says, “So why did this guy lose himself? What could’ve caused him to take a woman’s life? I can’t answer that. All I can do is report the facts and describe what happened next.” She’s suddenly switched from present tense to past. Somehow that seems important, though perhaps it’s another one of her distractions.
“What did he do?” I ask.
“Nothing,” she responds.
“Not really. He dropped the gun and sat down at his usual table to wait for the police. Never smiled. Never said a word. He just sat there until the officers came and took him away in handcuffs.”
“No,” she says. “Unfortunately it’s all too real.”
I open my mouth to speak but say nothing.
“The police brought him down to the station to interrogate him. They asked him simple questions. ‘Did you fire the gun? Did you shoot at her? Did you intend to kill her? Did you plan it in advance?’ Not that they needed a confession, mind you. They must have had thirty witnesses. But they asked, if only to fill in holes. ‘Yes,’ he told them. ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ But these interrogators were thorough. They wanted more than just an admission. They wanted the story behind the story. ‘Why did you do it?’ they said. ‘You have to tell us why.’ This timid murderer looked up, staring at his inquisitors as if to meet their collective gaze. He said, ‘She didn’t love me anymore.’ That’s all. He had nothing else he could tell them. Not another word. ‘She didn’t love me anymore.’ Can you believe it?”
“She was his girlfriend? His wife? His mistress?”
“None of that.”
My companion shrugs to tell me she doesn’t know, then shares the answer anyway. “She was his waitress.”
“It was enough. He had no family, no wife waiting at home, no burning romance to motivate him. This was the closest relationship he knew: that simple bond between customer and waitress. In a way, she became the love of his life. To him, there was no one else. He honestly must have believed that. What a sad reality he lived. His life must have revolved around her.”
I laugh sullenly, whispering, “What strange things we’ll do for love.”
“True,” my companion agrees. “But was it actually love?”
“I don’t know. Was it?”
“This guy sure thought so, but his waitress knew nothing about it. She served him more like a prostitute than a spouse. It was her job. Nothing more.”
“Then what’s the deal?”
“Listen and I’ll tell you.”
I give her the silence she demands.
“Here’s the story his lawyer told, trying to get him off on an insanity plea. This guy worked in an office down the block from his favorite restaurant. He got into a routine of going there every evening when he finished his shift. Five days a week he left his office, walked up the street, and entered the restaurant so punctually other patrons could set their watches by him. That is, if any ever noticed he came in.” She shrugs and taps her watch. “Anyway, each night he sat in the same booth, drank a glass of the same lukewarm wine, and spoke the same redundant words. He had a different meal for every day of the week, but they were always the same meals on the same days, rotated by design. Other than that, he changed nothing. I think any variance might have killed him. It’s as if he’d gotten trapped in a dull movie, one that was replayed over and over in the earliest hours on some desperate channel. It was a movie with a plot that never changed, acting that didn’t improve, and characters that never made you love them. How tedious it must have seemed. And yet, how comforting. The routine was all he had: the softest pillow on a hard bed.”
Kristan taps her fingers on the table. Her eyes stare down, watching her left hand as it dances, drawing closer to the glass. Then she grabs that glass and squeezes. She doesn’t lift the glass to her lips. “A couple months in, this guy met the new waitress. She took good care of him, and before long she was the only one that served him. She treated him with basic human kindness and aloof courtesy. Then she started to recognize him. She learned his face, his habits, the predictability of his meals. Soon she was calling him by name, grinning politely as he returned the greeting. It never went beyond that. They weren’t lovers. They didn’t meet secretly in some dark place or reorder their lives to quell a nervous craving. They never dated, never kissed. There was no passion between them. Time didn’t stop when they traded smiles. It wouldn’t even be right to call them friends.”
“Then why was he obsessed with her?”
“Obsessed? I wouldn’t describe him as obsessed. It’s not like he followed her home after she left work. He didn’t ask her out or call her just to hear her voice before hanging up. No, he wasn’t obsessed. He probably forgot her as soon as he left the restaurant. He took only that small piece of her life, the same piece she possessed of his. But it was enough. For a lonely man like that, this must have been the one relationship he had. It must have added some sense of stability so long as he kept it within those concise boundaries of server and patron. It’s that relationship she violated without ever knowing it. She breached the faith, and I suspect that’s what killed her.”
“It was her fault?”
“Not so,” she replies. She shakes her head. “Even her mistakes were his.”
“Then what was his mistake?”
“He forgot his wallet,” she tells me. “It’s like this. He’d been such a good customer all that time. Then one day he came in, ate his meal, and started to pay the tab. That’s when he realized he’d left his wallet at home. Forget how miserable it made him to have broken the routine, and imagine how embarrassed he must have been. In this odd relationship, what he did was the equivalent of forgetting his anniversary. He must’ve felt the ache all through him. I’ll bet his face turned bright red and he started sweating through his clothes. What a horrifying caricature he became: Quasimodo’s bones turning to dust in the final ecstasy of an unapproachable love.” My companion closes her eyes for a moment. A shiver races across her skin, though it might be a trick of light and shadow. “People that value love the most die a bit after every wound. And they deserve their many deaths. They love too much. But as for those that welcome love the least, perhaps not at all, they can impale themselves on every spear and never lose a breath by screaming. Both types make bad lovers. One doesn’t love well, whereas the other doesn’t love. They torture themselves and others with extremes, never learning how to suffer best.”
I lift my glass, licking moisture off the side. It’s cold, at once damp and dry. Ice cubes click against the glass like chattering teeth. I focus on the sound, knowing that as soon as I let it possess me, my companion will begin again.
“That’s the lonely man who loved. One day he forgot his wallet, and after that everything changed. He apologized, pleading for her forgiveness as if his sin were having allowed another waitress to serve him, or as if he’d broken her trust by ordering something new. He begged her to accept his sterile, valueless gray watch as collateral until he could return with the money he owed. He even offered to pay her double when he got back. ‘It’ll just take a few minutes’ he promised. ‘I won’t leave you hanging. I’ll be right back. I swear I will.’ It was the most he’d ever said to her. Even so, it was only a small offering. He would’ve given her his life if she wanted it. But she was having none of that.”
“Harsh. What did she do?”
“She trusted him.”
“She trusted him. It wasn’t like he was a stranger. She knew him well enough, saw he was locked into his routine. No one breaks a ritual like that over night – not short of death. It’d lead to insanity. It’s like a guy who lifts weights or plays racquetball every day after school. Then, without any transition, he gets out into the business world and no longer has time for his old habits. Show me a guy like that and I’ll show you a guy who’s primed for a breakdown.” Kristan pauses. Shadows of her eyes melt in caramel bands, spirals bent by a sliver of light that catches her as she lowers her head. “Anyway, the waitress trusted our lonely, gray man. ‘It’s all right, honey,’ she told him. ‘I know you’re good for it. You can settle up tomorrow. I’ll be here, same as always.’ No fuss, no problem. And he accepted her kindness. He had no choice.”
“The next day, he came in, paid the bill, then sat down to eat as if nothing happened. The issue had been resolved. He tried to put it behind him.”
“Then why did he shoot her?”
For just an instant, I imagine I hear the sound of her laughter, but as far as I can tell, her lips never move. When she answers, her voice lacks humor. “Because she never let him forget it.”
“She mocked him?”
“One might see it that way. Then again, maybe what she did was as kind and generous as the trust she gave him. It’s possible she wanted to be friendly, to make conversation. Who knows, maybe she even felt closer to him after that day, seeing him as human and not some automaton.”
“He must’ve had a better reason than that.”
“You’re looking for justifications. There aren’t any. That’s the mistake people always make when faced with something horrible and bizarre. They think they can search long and hard and, if they put in enough effort, they’re bound to find an answer. But the truth is, not every riddle can be solved, and not every symbol hides a secret. Some things are just as they are.”
“Maybe,” I agree.
She misunderstands, thinking I’m brushing her words aside. “Now I don’t want to tell you the rest. You’ll look for an answer that isn’t there. You’ll search for meaning in the story instead of in yourself.”
“I’m looking for the truth, that’s all.”
“But why look elsewhere?”
“I’ll take my truth however I can get it.”
“Even if it’s the wrong one?”
She grins but continues to chide me, although in a more playful tone. “Bad truth’s like decaffeinated coffee. What’s the point? If you can’t handle the full jolt, stay away.”
“Blind and asleep?” I joke.
We stare vaguely, neither of us speaking, neither so much as flinching. But the weight of our quiet grows oppressive, and I have to find release. “Finish the story,” I tell her, adding humbly, “please.”
“You won’t try to justify it or find strained logic to make yourself feel better?”
I nod again, though a shaking of the head might be more appropriate.
Finding enough truth in me, she says, “Okay, so long as you understand there’s no mystery, no implicit purpose to make the story safe, tangible, or even clear. The characters are complex. You can’t see through them. You’ll get lost toying with any rationale of what a woman wants or a priori thinks a man wants. That’s no good. Then you won’t hear the words themselves.”
Her smile clouds my judgment. I return the grin, a cul-de-sac she avoids. She turns away, making me feel reproached.
“Well, things changed for our lonely man. He broke the routine by accident. She saved the relationship with trust. Everything would’ve ended up as before if she’d put it behind her, if she hadn’t kept reminding him of his infidelity when all he wanted was to forget. She didn’t mean to be hurtful, but what did that matter? Even friendly words sting when poorly placed. The lonely man came back every day at first. He sat in his usual spot and ordered his standard dinners. The waitress would greet him courteously, smile at him like the best of flirts, and then follow up with those soft-spoken words: ‘I hope you brought your wallet today.’ I don’t know this for sure, but I imagine him blushing and bowing his head. That’s the sort of man I see. She’d say, ‘Did you remember your wallet?’ Or, ‘Have you got money today?’ She always said it with the same delirious smile, followed by a laugh which seemed to add, I’m only kidding, honey. You know that. But he didn’t know. He heard the words but couldn’t translate the interpersonal language, the things she said without saying. Whenever she spoke to him like that, he must have felt terror, the fear and trembling as if exposed beneath eyes of an angry god. Do you know that feeling? I’ll bet you do. It’s like claustrophobia, except that it hits you anywhere, even in an open field. Your face catches fire. Your heart squeezes in your chest like a white-knuckled fist. You can’t breathe. It’s as if you’ve got a hand pressing on your nostrils and a rope around your gut.”
Not giving me time to interrupt, she pauses just long enough to take a deep, healthy breath. “He no longer had the comfort of his old routine. He started coming in less and less. Three times a week at first. Then two. Then it was once every couple of weeks. Before long he was coming in almost at random, at varying times on different days. And then one day, probably during a rain storm much like this one tonight, with the sky dark and the heavens obscured, he walked in through the front door, a revolver in his hand. I can picture him wearing a black fedora and a trench coat, though I know that’s not his character. But to be honest, who can say? His mind had snapped. So the cops came, took him away, asked him for a reason. All he said was …”
“‘She didn’t love me anymore.’”
“Exactly,” Kristan agrees, her tone as solemn as the bowing of her head and lowering of her eyes suggest. “She didn’t love him anymore. That’s what he told the police, what he believed. His entire life was in that one uncanny phrase. She no longer loved him in the way he’d grown accustomed to being loved. It was a crime of passion.” She hesitates. “You understand?”
“I think so.” Like I promised, I don’t offer interpretations.
When she hears the resignation in my voice, she looks up and grins to show she’s pleased. I return the smile, happy to have a sense of resolution. Her story’s finished, the unexplainable tension between us faded. But I know it’s time for another story, one much more personal that belongs to me. I flash a pleading glance, begging the reprieve. Surprising me, she grants it. “Don’t think I love you anymore?”
I look away.
“So, why don’t we dance for a while?”
Ace Boggess of Huntington, West Virginia, is author of Displaced Hours, a literary novel; Beautiful Ambivalence, a novel in hyperlinked stories; Beautiful AmbivalenceThe Beautiful Girl Whose Wish was Not Fulfilled, a book of poems; and Two Weeks Notice, a self-produced audio CD featuring 13 original songs, many of which may be downloaded as free mp3s. His writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Notre Dame Review, Atlanta Review, Florida Review, Blue Mesa Review, Rattle, and many similar journals, including several past issues of The Paumanok Review.