Tuesday, December 29, 2009

People I (re-)meet in bars, #7: Gwen

AUTHOR'S NOTE: These aren't necessarily written and/or posted in the order in which they happen.

----------------------

We dated for eighteen months, off and on and off and on and off and on, but walking into this bar is the first time I've ever seen Gwen drink. She's hovering over something red, which I assume to be at least part cranberry juice.

She used to get mad at me for the whiskey I kept in my freezer. We had a pretty disclosing relationship, and the night we first kissed--third date, because, well, I'm a gentleman--we were telling each other the things we thought the other needed to know before we embarked on this unfamiliar ground.

"I eventually want kids," she said.

"I have a really bad attitude about things sometimes," I said.

"I have a hard time trusting people," she said.

"I drink an awful lot of--"

"Whiskey?" she interrupted.

"...Dr. Pepper, actually. Like, a six pack a day."

"How much whiskey do you drink?"

"Hell, I don't know...maybe two glasses a week? Not much." It was true. And that conversation somehow, in the back of my mind, seemed to hover over the remainder of our relationship. I haven't seen her for, what, two years? And the last place I expect to break that streak is at this rathole of a bar.

But there she is. Out of place. Like seeing a snowman in hell. Snowperson. Whatever. Some sort of person made of snow. Gender isn't important to the simile. Shit, I think, I can't even process this into a sensical figure of speech.

And I'm certainly not prepared for the eye contact she greets me with.

She recognizes me. Her eyes light up like a midnight streetlamp and she leaps from her stool to her feet, like someone just challenged her to a duel. I'm half-expecting her to slap me across the face with a dainty white glove and say something insulting (and adorable) in French.

But she doesn't. She's happy to see me. She practically long-jumps to me, her long legs taking longer strides and her arms wrap around me like I'm a Christmas present. She presses against me like I'm indented for her.

"Andy," she says, squeezing harder than I think I may have ever been squeezed by anyone that hadn't just told me to turn my head and cough.

"Gwen," I say, more to myself than to her. I'm surprised at how natural the name sounds, coming off of my tongue. I try to think of a different mental image than tongues. I'm not as successful as I'd like.

"What are you doing here?" she asks.

"What am I doing here? What are you doing here? I thought you were in Minneapolis."

"Nah," she says, kicking her foot against the ground, her black boots click-clacking against the hardwood. "I'm actually in Michigan now. Started grad school. It's a good program."

"Now, I'm not a doctor or anything," I say, "but this isn't Michigan."

She laughs aloud and smiles wide. Any wider and I'd assume her face was being sarcastic. But her grin is dripping with enough sincerity to start a forest fire.

"You're still funny."

"And you're still in Utah. What for?"

"Just the holidays," she says. "Visiting my family."

She gestures for me to sit. I hesitate for a split-second before remembering that all I wanted for a solid nine months after whatever happened--I'm still not entirely sure what it was--happened was to take a seat next to her at a bar.

"They say hi, by the way. My family."

"Oh good! Tell them I said hi. Jeez, you have the best family."

"They still like you. Even my dad, who doesn't really like anybody I used to date, asks about you occasionally."

"He'd better still like me," I say. "I lent him my copy of The Wild Bunch. I've seen marriages been built on less."

She laughs again. That laugh. Goddamn that laugh for what it's doing to me. It twirls through the air and lands in my ears and pulls out a shovel and digs up everything that's been buried and ignored and eventually forgotten. I don't appreciate how glad I am for it.

"So how are you? Whatever happened with that girl? What was her name?"

"Kirsten," I remind her.

"Right, Kirsten. Kirsten."

"Why do you say it like that?"

"I never liked Kirsten," she says with an undercurrent of animosity I'm equal parts surprised and grateful to perceive. "I didn't think she was good for you."

"Yeah, but you didn't think you were good for me, either. Ha ha!" I try to end with a laugh to indicate that I'm joking--or pretending to joke, anyway--but I actually end up pronouncing the words "ha ha," like I was reading a text message. My face goes cherry red.

"So," she says, grabbing the steering wheel of the conversation and putting us back on the road. "How are you? Really?"

What bothers me most, I guess, is that she really seems to want to know. This person who just disappeared and one day and then reappeared in the last possible place I'd look for her wants to know how I am.

So I tell her. I tell her about my broken engagement, the shit that caused it and the shit it caused, the recovery from the slight drinking problem (hey, just because I'm in a lot of bars doesn't mean I drink a lot of alcohol), the success of the semester, my job, old friends that liked her, etc. And I tell her how I'm doing pretty well. How I'm happy. Happier than I've been in a long time, although I leave out how I was happier during our three-month-long bouts than I'd otherwise been.

Then I ask her how she is. She tells me about her broken engagement, the scary implications of some of the stuff that went down, the subsequent struggle to ever trust anyone--a problem she faced before--her difficulty getting as emotionally clear of the relationship as she got physically clear of it, how well grad school is going, her new job, and how she's just going to focus on her for a while.

"That's a good idea," I tell her. "I know I was never happier than when I focused on you." I smile slyly, trying to hide my immediate regret at having said something so dramatic and cloying. But she's gracious and smiles back.

"Thanks." She sips at her glass. When she hugged me upon my entrance, I didn't smell liquor on her breath or her person, so I'm wondering what the story is.

"What are you drinking?" I ask.

"Cranberry juice," she says. "Just cranberry juice."

"Then why are you in a bar?"

"Felt like people watching."

"See anyone interesting?" I ask, scoping myself for someone to write about.

"I do now." She's looking at me so directly that it's like she's trying to meet an Eye Contact Quota before she gets punished by some union boss or something. "I've actually got to get going, though. I'm headed back to school tomorrow and I've gotta get some sleep." She stands up from her stool and takes the last splash of her juice.

"Well, sir," she says, slipping her hands out of her cardigan's pockets and around my neck, "it's really good to see you." She gives a final squeeze, like she was underlining her goodbye.

"You too. Big surprise to see you here, though." I see her smiling as she pulls away.

"We'll keep in touch," she offers. But I will not accept these as the last words I say to her for another year. This will not do. This is not enough. Sufficient respect to our history has not yet been paid, and I cannot allow her to walk out that door, the same one she stumbled into an hour or two ago in a moment of bizarre synchronicity, out into a cold world that doesn't deserve to have her.

"Gwen?" I call out when she's close enough to the door to have already extended her hand to the handle. She turns around and looks back at me, the edgy, unpredictable former love, the man she once believed was the best thing that had ever happened to her, the man into whose arms she crawled after watching Carrie, the man for whom she bought the second season of X-Files, the man whose breaths and sweat she shared on so many different nights, the man who told her about passions he was too intimidated to even want to acknowledge having, the man that brought her flowers and made her dinner and ate her mom's meatloaf and went with her to midnight movies and wrote her songs and lent her younger brother computer games and talked theory with her sister and sang songs with her brother-in-law and pirated her favorite TV shows and took her to get her hair cut and brought her Vitamin Water after her wisdom teeth were taken out and the man from whose life she disappeared like a bunny into a magician's hat.

What do I say? What am I even thinking?

"I hope we do keep in touch."
"I miss you."
"I got you a Christmas present."
"Good luck with school."
"Fuck you."
"Why did you leave?"
"Tell your mom I said hi."
"I hope you find what you're looking for."
"You'll never do better than me."
"Do you still love me?"
"I had a dream where we got married."
"I'll never forgive you for how much you hurt me."
"I'm glad to see you."
"You can come back and stay with me tonight and I'll take you to the airport in the morning and we can just see how things go, no expectations, you can have the bed and I'll take the floor and you just have to whisper my name or blink it in morse code and I'll leap into bed and just be with you like I used to, like you wanted to, and when the daylight creeps through the blinds it'll burn my face and I'll demand to the forces of nature that time be stopped so that you don't have to leave again because there's still something for us."

I let my shoulders fall and the corners of my mouth turn up on their own.

"Have a safe flight back tomorrow," I offer. She smiles back and walks out the door, wrapping her scarf around her neck.

Everybody needs a little retrospect. Tonight, new pages are more promising than old ones. And I'm really curious to see where that book goes.

1 comment:

emilyf said...

I like this as much as I like the soft, warm smell of pancakes drifting through the central heating system. I like it like I like unwrapping an orange in one consecutive peel, to say nothing of eating it and my fingers smelling of citrus after. I wish I was more like Gwen instead of like "you" in these situations. I have now used the word "like" eight times. Funny how laughs have such a power to dig, to release both from laugher and hearer. So funny...