A soft rain fell across the town like a sheet over a body, covering the pavement and cars and buildings. The dim streetlights lining the sidewalk peered into themselves as the wet ground reflected their glow. Each hazy orange luminescence, shining from above and reflecting from below, seemed a stepping stone in a path that would end inevitably with the only other source of light during such a quiet hour in such a quiet town—the neon-lit window of a bar. If not for the two signs in its window, the bar could have easily been assumed to be a small add-on to the train station next door; its actual relationship to the train station was something more of a pleasant codependence. Though the bar was not a direct relative of the station, it did often act as something of the sort—a place where people from the town and people from the trains would sit and exchange stories over a beer.
On this night, at this time, sat only two people, a man and a woman, each hunched over half-full glasses of beer, looking intermittently from the person beside them to their drinks while speaking quietly. Around them, the bar had long since begun to close: every stool in the room had been flipped and, save for the overhead light directly above the bar where they sat, the room was dark. Though neither patron ever said so, they found themselves disquieted at the thought of sitting with their backs to those deep shadows in a room that, in another time, would have felt almost like a second home.
The man, smiling at his drink, was telling a story about a night in that same bar, years ago, when he and his friend, Ronnie, had taken a framed picture of a framed picture.
“So it was this stupid picture that had a picture of a blank picture frame in it that I thought was hilarious—I was dumb back then–”
“And drunk,” the woman interceded, remembering the story because she had been there, though she was too polite to remind him.
“Right. Dumb and drunk make for mistakes and memories, I guess. Luckily this ended up being more of a memory than a mistake. Bill never found out. It’s still hanging in the guest room of my house.” There was a heavy pause, as if the mention of his home had made them afraid to speak. Eventually, he said, “Fuck, I wish I took that thing with me.”
“I guess you can’t have everything when you’re running away from home,” the woman responded in an attempt at consolation.
The man looked over at the woman in the soft bar light, its orange glimmer cascading across her face and in that moment, she looked like she did thirty years ago, when he had met her at this bar, when he had fallen in love with her over a beer in a booth behind them that was now engulfed in darkness. He turned towards where he knew the booth to be and the woman followed his gaze.
She nodded into the darkness and said, “Do you remember our first conversation? Do you remember what we talked about?”
“We talked about Ballantine,” the man said with a smile.
“I couldn’t believe that you were drinking it, too. I always felt like the only person in the world who still drank it.”
“You didn’t give me enough credit. I love exploring different kinds of beers.”
“Oh, I know that now.”
“And we can try as many new beers as we want now in as many different bars as we want. Where do you want to go after Utica?” As he spoke, the two saw the bartender returning from the back with an anxious look on his face. They both knew that the bar had closed nearly an hour ago yet neither wanted to leave to wait for their train in the damp night air—they would hold on to their time in that bar as long as possible. The bartender gave them a sideways glance that they both noticed and continued his closing responsibilities, now moving to mop the floors around them.
The woman responded after considering briefly, “I think south is the way to go. I’ve seen enough of the north for one life.”
“How far south are you thinking? I’m not sure I can handle being sticky all the time.”
“Well, how far south is too far south? I guess I’d like any place where you can swim more often than you can ski.”
“So we’re going coastal?”
“I guess it all depends on where you want to go, you’re going to end up paying for most of it.” She looked away as she finished the sentiment. Her gaze landed upon herself in a large mirror that sat behind the bar and looked out across the room. The foreground of its backwards world was drenched in orange while the rest of the image dwelled in an inky black. Her face was lit up in warm colors, framed sternly by the darkness that surrounded it. Her auburn hair seemed alive, dancing with her every movement, spotlighted by its similar color to the air around it. She noticed eventually that he had not answered and she felt obliged to reenergize the conversation.
“It’s exciting—hitting the restart button like this, right?”
The man nodded and said: “I’m excited to do it with you. I haven’t been excited for a long time. It feels like a dream that we’re doing this.”
“You’re right, it doesn’t feel real yet,” she took a sip of her beer and continued, “you can still back out if you want.”
“Not a chance. The only thing I’ll miss is some of the stuff in the house—I won’t even miss that damn house. It was a piece of shit anyway.”
“That was not a bad house—I hope you don’t think the same way about whatever house we find.”
With a laugh, the man countered, “No, no, no. It’s not that I don’t like the house itself, it’s that I lived there for twenty-seven years and I can’t remember anything good happening. I feel like it was cursed—maybe I’m cursed. Fingers crossed it’s the house, right?” he concluded with another laugh and another sip.
The bartender walked close behind them with his mop and a bucket filled with dirty water to a room at the back of the bar with a slop sink and an amalgam of cleaning supplies. The door closed behind him but his body prevented the door from shutting completely.
“I can’t say I’ve really enjoyed any of the places I’ve lived for the last thirty years, either,” the woman said, “I think I’ve lived in some nice places I just didn’t like the person I was living with.”
“So how many people did you end up living with, then?”
“Four, but I lived with one for half of that time.”
“Right, Jack. You never told me, where were you living when you were with him?”
“We lived together in Tucson for most of the time. We met when I was in Sacramento and we moved there a couple of years after because his job transferred him.”
“You never thought to get married?”
Before the woman could answer, the roar of dirty water being poured into the slop sink interrupted them. The woman turned towards the crack of light that dripped through the nearly closed door, slightly illuminating the part of the bar where that original booth rested. She could see the cracks in the red leather seats and the scarred wood of the table in the middle. She thought about the times that the two of them had sat together in that booth, sometimes across from one another, sometimes sitting on the same side. That was over thirty years ago and she wondered if the haze of alcohol and youth was hiding something from her. She felt that her memories of their relationship seemed too good to be true—a rush of varying conversations and sex and drunkenness that, from what she remembered, simply ended. She searched the details of the booth trying to remember what had gone wrong and found nothing, whatever cracks and scars from that initial relationship felt as endearing to her as those in the booth, nothing more than two drinkers becoming at times overwrought with passion.
Eventually, she remembered that she had been asked a question and turned back to the man to respond.
“It’s just nothing that either of us were ever interested in. Maybe there just wasn’t enough passion to have that in our minds—that much time without passion. I feel like I wasted my whole life.”
“Marriage has nothing to do with passion. A lot of times it’s just circumstances. I guess my circumstances were different than yours,” the man responded and looked towards the front of the bar at the neon signs shining away from him.
“You’re positive that you’re alright with leaving her, right? I don’t want you to have a change of heart halfway through this.”
“Seeing you last month when you came back to town was the first time I had been excited in a long time. I’m excited to be excited again.”
The woman nodded in agreement and the man continued, “And this past month has been an exciting month–spending time with you, going on those long drives like we used to, drinking and making love in your hotel room like we’re in our twenties again–it’s all been so good. But I know we can’t keep doing that in this town. I feel like this is the first chance I’ve ever taken–my heart’s sitting in my throat in a way I forgot it could. With you back now, I feel like this is the only chance I have to go back to enjoying my life.”
The smile on the woman’s face wavered as she listened. Was he excited about their future or their past? She reminded herself that she felt much the same way the man did. This month had been a happy reminder of their youth, when their passion acted both as the catalyst of their relationship and as its eventual garroter. In this past month, the woman had found that that same passion remained but was muted–possibly from their age and experience or perhaps for some reason she would never understand. Nevertheless, when she turned back to the man, she once again found her smile.
The bartender eventually turned off the light in the small back room and emerged to start counting his tips behind the bar, the entire time keeping his eyes averted from the couple. The man took note of the disdain the bartender had for their loitering and shifted in his seat. The man thought about how strange it was that he was now considered an unwanted guest in a place where, for years, he had been a regular who had always been kind to the staff and owners. Four years ago, the longtime owner, Bill, had sold the place to new owners. They retained some of the staff and didn’t change much of the bar itself—there wasn’t much need to considering there weren’t any real competitors in the small upstate New York town. When Bill had sold the place, the man found himself coming less and less frequently until he stopped altogether. This night was the first in over a year that the man had been here and the bartender was new so the man did not expect him to treat him any differently than any other customer—yet, the fact that he was never truly going to be at home in a bar like this gnawed at him.
As the man thought about this, he noticed that the conversation had come to a close and saw as the bartender took this chance.
“Alright guys, we’re all closed up for the night. It’s time to go home.”
The man and woman agreed with the bartender, slid their empty glasses away from themselves, and stood. They looked at one another once more in the orange light of the bar, their bodies both seeming to swell with excitement and anxiousness. Each seemed to be studying the other’s face, as if trying to retain this one final memory before stepping into an chasm of the unknown. Finally, the two turned away from the soft orange light of the past and turned towards the cold, blue lights facing the outside of the bar.