I'm driving my car, on my way to a place I've never been before, to have a conversation I've been dreaming about having for months, and I don't have the slightest clue what the hell I'm going to say.
I stop at a red light and take the time to read the directions to the bar that I had hastily scrawled on a scrap of paper half an hour earlier, even though I've already committed them to memory. The bar is on the right side of the road, just after the next light. I'm almost there, and a million thoughts are crashing together in my head, none rising above any other, leaving me completely lost.
In a strange sort of way, it's exactly what I had been hoping for.
I could have avoided this, if I'd really wanted to. I avoided it for months, for the entire time I worked at my last job. Not a bad job, I suppose, but certainly not an inspiring one. Bottom of the totem pole, doing work that no one cared about. If you did it wrong, you got in trouble for not doing your job, but if you did it right, it still didn't matter because the job itself didn't matter. My high point in that job was knowingly following to the letter incorrect instructions a boss had given me, ultimately costing the company nearly half a million dollars. Considering I was making under eight bucks an hour, I was less than sympathetic. I just pretended to be, so I wouldn't get fired. Still, I had higher aspirations, and eventually I moved on to something a bit more relevant, a bit more challenging, and a lot more rewarding, and I haven't regretted it for a second. That should have been the end of it.
However, my mind kept coming back to the famous statement—a cliché, really—that the saddest words in the language are "It might have been," and I decided I didn't want to find out firsthand if it was true. I still talked to some of the people from my previous job—a good group of people, my ex-coworkers—and so I dropped a hint here, a comment there, knowing that they would filter through one person to the next until someone managed to put all the pieces together. I hope they don't realize it was all calculated—I tried to be as subtle as possible, but I'm too close to the situation to know how it came across to them. I suppose it doesn't truly matter, because ultimately I got exactly what I wanted.
At the bar, Alison is waiting.
Even in the dark, the building is impossible to miss. If the brilliantly lit parking lot wasn't clue enough, the large tacky neon sign by the entrance to the parking lot is. I flip on the turn signal as late as possible and slow down as early as possible just to annoy the jerk who's been tailgating me for the last half-mile, and pull off the asphalt highway into the broken rock parking lot. I swing the car around and come to a stop in a distant corner of the lot, away from the other cars. I turn off the headlights, remove the keys from the ignition, and then just sit there for several minutes in the dark, trying to calm myself, gather my thoughts together, and screw up enough courage to get out of the car and enter the damn bar.
When I finally open the door, the cold January air hits me like a hammer. I step out of the car, slam the door shut, and pull my jacket tighter as I walk to the bar's entrance.
It's much warmer inside, though the heat has less impact on me than the immediate burning, scratchy sensation in the back of my throat caused by the cigarette smoke. My eyes start to burn a little, too. There's a thick blue haze in the place, and I obliquely wonder how these people would ever be able to tell if the next room over burst into flames.
I resist the urge to wave my hand in front of my face to clear away the smoke—it'll look bad and it won't help anyway. I cough discreetly, taking in faces, trying to spot her without being obvious about it, and start forward—I'll attract too much attention if I just stand in the doorway.
I notice right away that a few people—the regulars here, I assume—are trying to size me up just as discreetly as I am them. I make eye contact with one, who is looking at me like I'm some strange outsider, which of course I am, but that doesn't make me appreciate the "You're an intruder" look any more. Instead of quietly passing, I plant both feet and hold eye contact with him. He quickly caves, simultaneously turning away, lowering his head, and raising his beer mug back to his mouth. I give just the slightest headshake and start forward again before I create a scene. I'm under no illusions that he's not looking at me again the moment I pass.
That's when I spot her.
She's standing in front of the jukebox, her back toward me. I recognize her anyway. There's something about the way she dresses that stands out. As a guy, I have no fashion sense whatsoever, but I can tell that whatever fashion sense is, she's got it. She's wearing a dark jacket that manages to get across attitude without being anything so obvious and clichéd as black leather. I can't put my finger on it, but something about the way she dresses just works. I also recognize the hair, cut short, a color I can't quite describe. It's kind of auburn, but also the color of a deep suntan.
I take a deep breath and immediately regret it, as the smoke gets to me and I suffer through another coughing fit, which I muffle as best I can. I swallow once or twice, pull myself together, and walk up to a spot just behind her. Looking over her shoulder, I can see she's steadily going through the available music options in disgust. I see a few of the selections go by and grimace too. Some hip hop, some flavor of the week, a soundtrack to a bad movie. Sonic wastelands on demand.
I rock on my feet slightly and say, "Hello, Alison."
Alison turns toward me, startled for just a moment, then smiles. "Hi. Didn't notice you come in."
I shrug, not really having a response to that, other than the obvious fact that she wasn't looking toward the door, and I don't want to say that. Instead I gesture toward the jukebox. "Anything good?"
She makes a face which says it all. I smile. "Yeah," I say, "that's exactly what I expected." I pause, grope around for a topic of conversation, quickly find something to add. "I hope you haven't been waiting here too long."
"Nah. Couple of minutes. Just killing time till you arrived." She looks me in the eyes and frowns slightly. "Are you okay? You're eyes are all red."
I wave a hand dismissively. "It's nothing. Just the cigarette smoke."
"Oh," she says quickly. "I forgot about that. You mentioned it at work a few times." She looks around, and I briefly wonder if she's trying to find a thin spot in the haze. She frowns, then suggests, "We could always step outside."
I nod in agreement, and we start back toward the door. I smile slightly as we walk and point out, "You know, saying that in a bar is usually the prelude to a fight."
"Hey, I'll kick your ass, buddy," she immediately fires back, a hint of a smile on her face which she quickly hides. I laugh and shake my head again, and as I do my gaze falls briefly on a woman sitting at a table near the corner. I do a double take as I recognize her. Her name is Claire, and she's a friend of Alison's who still works back at the old job. She's trying not to look at me, just hard enough to be completely obvious about it. So Alison and I are going outside for a private conversation, and I can rest assured that after I leave, every word of it will be repeated, discussed, reviewed, analyzed, interpreted, dissected...
Oh, that's just perfect.
It occurs to me to suggest to Alison that we just invite Claire out with us, but as that thought occurs to me it also occurs to me that openly confrontational sarcasm would be more than a little counterproductive. And it's not like I should really be surprised that Alison is going to run this past someone else. If our positions were reversed, I'd do the same thing. So I keep my mouth shut and try to put Claire out of my mind.
Alison reaches the door first, and she holds it open for me. I've known any number of people who would give me all kinds of hell for that, because it's not traditional or properly manly or some damn thing. Personally, I don't see why gender should enter into it. She reached the door first, she opened it, she held it open so it didn't slam in my face. I appreciate that.
I step out of the warm smoky air into the cold crisp air of the winter night. I cough a few times, clearing my lungs, and rub my eyes, which are still watering, but now for a different reason. The wind has picked up significantly in the short time I spent in the bar, and it's started to snow lightly, the stiff breeze whipping the flakes nearly horizontally.
In the distance a car door slams, and loud voices drift across the parking lot, growing louder as the newest arrivals make a beeline for the door.
"Jesus fuckin' Christ, it's fuckin' cold out here!" the first guy says to his drinking buddy, louder than I think I could shout on my best day.
"No shit, asshole," his buddy says.
"Yes sir," the first continues in his booming voice. "It's colder than a witch's fuckin' tit, man."
"Oh, what does that even mean?" the buddy says, somewhat peevishly.
At this point they're close enough to notice us. The first glances us over, his gaze settling on Alison, and gives her a smile that's more feral than friendly.
"Hey, baby," he says, slowing up a bit. "What are you doin' standin' around this fuckin' parkin' lot?" He lowers his voice slightly. "Want to head back to my car with me, and we can warm each other up?"
My jaw doesn't actually fall open, but it might as well have. I stare in disbelief, unable to believe that people would actually talk like that to total strangers, and by the time I recovered my voice to say something Alison had already snorted in disgust and walked away.
The guy turned to his friend. "THAT'S what I mean by colder than a witch's fuckin' tit," he says, and they both laugh, a crude, abrasive cackle. The guy adds, "Let's go in. It's fuckin' cold out here, man." Without waiting for a response, he disappears into the bar. The second follows, but pauses in the doorway to look back at me. My first thought is that he's going to apologize for his friend's behavior.
"Good eye, buddy," he says to me. "But dude, if you get them drunk first, it's easier." And he disappears after his friend.
My second thought is that I'm delusional because the cold has frozen my brain.
I turn and jog briefly to catch up with Alison. She doesn't glance over at me, and even though I know I didn't do anything wrong, I'm still overcome with this feeling that I should apologize to her.
"Don't worry about it," she says, as though reading my mind. It throws me, and I do a little stutter step before recovering.
"What?" I manage.
Alison shrugs. "You've got this mortified look on your face like you feel you should have said something or thrown a punch or some other sort of stupid macho bullshit. Don't worry about it. I've heard worse."
My initial reaction is relief that this isn't going to be an issue, but then something else strikes me. "You've heard worse?" I echo. The thought that she has heard worse, and apparently often enough that she reacts with annoyance rather than revulsion is a bit disturbing to me. I can't imagine having crap like that directed at me on even a semi-regular basis, much less enough to take it in stride. I suppose it's an example of what they call the curse of good looks.
In response to my question, Alison says simply, "Apparently you've never been propostioned by a drunk guy before."
"Never," I say, pause, then admit, "Except just the once."
This causes her to break stride briefly, and for the first time she turns her full attention to me. "Really?" she asks, genuinely curious.
"Why?" she wonders aloud.
"Because I'm absolutely adorable," I say solemnly.
She quickly smothers a laugh with her hand. I decide she's laughing at the nature of my response rather than the concept that I'm adorable.
"All I'm going to say," I say, "is that it was at college, at a party, and the guy was twelve sheets to the wind..."
"Twelve?" she repeats.
"Or possibly thirty. This guy was smashed, and he wasn't discriminating his affections at all, to put it mildly. After I gave him the big turndown, he eventually humped a door frame, staggered outside, and threw up in the pool. With what went on that night, you couldn't have paid me enough to swim in that pool the next morning." I reminisce for a moment, remembering waking up the next morning under a coffee table wearing someone else's sneakers laced together so tightly that I had lost all feeling in my feet and had to drag myself to the kitchen to find a knife to cut them off. I never did find out what happened to my own sneakers. Also later that day I discovered a large patch of my hair had been dyed purple. All things considered, it was one of my better memories of college.
"Sounds like quite a story," she says mildly, and it's clear that she wants to hear the rest of it at some point. I can relate. I hope that someday I'll be able to recall all the details myself.
We walk a moment in silence, rapidly reaching the end of the parking lot. Because we're walking that way already, I suggest, "Want to walk up along the river?"
"Sounds good," she says, and we walk along together, out of the well-lit parking lot, onto the grass, and into the night.
Relationships remain an utter mystery to me. I've been in a number of them, and I still don't understand how or why they work the way they do. In fact, they make even less sense to me now than they did before I started learning about them firsthand. At least back then I could make believe it would all make sense someday.
But it doesn't. I don't even understand how friendships form, much less romantic relationships. I've started to develop feelings for one or two people during the sort of small talk I've engaged in with literally a hundred other people with absolutely nothing to distinguish it from those hundred other conversations. Another time, I talked with a woman regularly and exchanged email with her daily for three months, and we never really got beyond the "Hi, hello, how are you?" stage. No explanation for that exists, and if you spend too much time trying to figure it out you'll drive yourself nuts. Hell, if there was any rhyme or reason to it, computer dating would work.
There have been volumes written on the subject, most of the contradictory, none of them particularly helpful. I don't read a word of it. As with many other things, one tends to latch onto the aspects one is already predisposed toward, and if all I'm going to do is seek affirmation for what I already believe in, why should I even bother looking. I have enough confidence in my beliefs that I don't need to hear them echoed by others to have faith in them. It's a total waste of my time.
So what do I believe? Well, I believe we need more words for love than the language currently has. People can say, "I love my wife," "I love my child," "I love this CD," "I love this movie star," "I love this food," "I love my hobby," and "I love the color purple," and mean all of it, and not mean the word "love" in the same way twice. The love one has for a good steak is nothing like the love one has for a spouse. I love watching thunderstorms, but there's a world of difference between that and saying, "I love you."
I don't love just thunderstorms. Downpours without any lightning or thunder also fascinate me. Not all precipitation does, but there are certainly a lot of different types, right? Thunderstorms, downpours, rain, heavy rain, light rain, showers, sprinkles, monsoons, deluges, drizzle... And yet, it's all the same thing in the end. Water falling from the sky. So why so many words for "rain" and just one for "love"? A description of rain generally isn't that important, but how many hearts have been broken when a person who reserves the word "love" for only the deepest of emotions is told "I love you" by someone the word around like a wad of Kleenex? It's a word that should be reserved and protected a lot more than it is.
Another use is in that old cliché "Love at first sight." Which is a misnomer. It should be stated as "Lust at first sight," which is more accurate, and more honest, but also carries with it a more negative connotation. If you reserve the word "love" (with respect to relationships) to serious feelings, to include a strong level of devotion, then there can't be any such thing as love at first sight. You simply can't develop an emotional bond with another person just by making eye contact.
Of course, you can certainly find someone attractive, even drop dead gorgeous, to use another cliché. That happens all the time, to pretty much everyone, and there's nothing wrong with it. Hell, if you don't experience lust at first sight now and then, you probably don't have a pulse. That's as far as it goes in most cases, especially if it's toward a public figure like a movie star, but for some people I think that's as far as it ever goes. I don't expect those two braying jackasses from the parking lot have ever thought beyond that. Their loss, certainly.
But beyond the initial reaction comes actually getting to know who the other person is, and at that point, the feelings usually fizzle and die. Maybe the other person smokes, maybe they curse like a drunken sailor, maybe they reserve all their affection for their cats, maybe they're a bigot, maybe they have a voice that goes right through you, maybe they blather on endlessly about anything and everything that occurs to them, maybe they simply don't like you in return—any one of a thousand things can make it clear that there's nothing more there. They can still be fun to look at and dream about and even be with, as long as you're not under the illusion that there's anything more there.
Every now and then, though, there actually is more there. You start to see who the other person is, and instead of being turned off, all you want to do is learn more. It can happen even without the "lust at first sight" in the beginning, first impressions being notoriously unreliable. I can't say for certain, but I think the magic of relationships happens somewhere in there, where the personalities are attractive and captivating rather than the appearance, and lust is a non-factor, never even entering into it, even if they are attractive physically.
So does that mean that wanting to talk to a person rather than sleep with them means that you love them? No, no, of course not. Not even close.
But it's an excellent start.
Alison and I walk along the path in the dark. There's a sidewalk that runs along the top of the levee, paralleling the river, with the occasional street light or park bench. It tends to be very busy during the summer, but tonight in the snow it's just the two of us.
We walk in silence for a while. I want to say something to begin the actual conversation, because what started as a comfortable silence is getting heavier and heavier with each step. However, in my head I keep getting as far as "So!" and then nothing more comes to me, and while I'm not sure of much, I know I need more than that.
Alison eventually breaks the silence, cutting right to the heart of the matter.
"So how come you never said anything before?" she asks.
My pace slows a bit while I quickly weigh responses in my head, then sigh heavily.
"Oh, I don't know," I say. "There's any number of reasons, I guess..."
I pause, choose the order to put them in, hoping she'll interrupt me. She doesn't. She waits patiently.
"Maybe because we got along so well at work," I begin, "and I didn't want to risk screwing that up. If I approached you and you were put off by it, that would have ended, and just working together would have been awkward, and I didn't want to have to deal with that...
"Or because everyone at work would have very quickly known about it, and there'd be the rumor mill, the gossip, the conversations that abruptly end when you or I enter the room...
"Or because I'm chickenshit...
"Or because you went from a boyfriend who made you unavailable to the guy you'd wanted to go out with for years to the two week fling with the guy from Human Resources to the crush on..."
"Whoa whoa whoa," Alison finally interrupts me, right about at the point I'd expected her to. "You're making it sound like you didn't ask me out because you think I'm some sort of a slut."
"No, that's not what I meant at all," I say quickly, wanting to put a stop to that thought before it can really get started. "But, I wanted to say something but wasn't sure if I should, much less how to go about it, and for me, hearing you talk about these guys didn't give me the impression that I had much of a shot. And while I wish I could come up with a better way to phrase this, I didn't want to end up as just another name somewhere on the list."
She's silent for a long time, and I'm worried that I've really insulted her right off the bat. I'm tempted to say something to break the silence, but I restrain myself. She waited patiently for me. I'll do the same for her.
"You know," she says, a tone in her voice I've never heard before, "it's really interesting, being the object of a silent crush. In a lot of ways, it's flattering, especially when the person with the crush is a cool person, but it's also awkward, because it makes you wonder why they never act on it, or what it is about you that makes you so unapproachable. And, the one time I was forward with a guy in that situation, I never got answers to those questions because he instantly went sprinting for the hills."
I chuckle despite myself. "For what it's worth, I'd like to think I kind of offered an answer for that one already."
She considers this. "Yeah, I guess you did." She pauses. "...chickenshit."
I grimace slightly, but I'm not upset. "Is that going to be my new nickname around work? 'I had a talk with chickenshit last Friday and he said he got propositioned by a drunk guy'?"
Alison laughs at that. She has a wonderful laugh. "That's a great idea!"
I shake my head, smiling slightly. "Should I say I should have kept my mouth shut, or would that be too ironic considering what's led up to this conversation?"
She doesn't respond to this, so we walk in silence a bit longer. I see a bench under a light pole up ahead and consider suggesting we sit down, but the thought of sitting on a cold bench in a strong wind in the middle of winter is not at all appealing. Besides, moving around is the only thing keeping me warm.
Past the bench are concrete steps with a metal rail on each side and down the middle, descending away from the river into a field, beyond which is the street where I'd been tailgated. Unspoken, we both turn to the stairs and start down, one on each side of the rail.
"So what's the real reason," Alison asks abruptly.
I frown and blankly echo, "'Real reason'?"
She closes her mouth and exhales heavily, the wind sweeping her breath away. "You offered up a list of reasons why you didn't say anything before, but you started it with a maybe. I'm sure that there's... something," she hesitates, trying to find the right word and apparently failing, "some part of them that played a role in you not saying anything. But what's the real reason?"
I think of what I'd said earlier, and there's certainly a grain of truth in all of them, but the more I consider them, the less they strike me as actual explanations and the more they start to sound like excuses.
I didn't want to screw up our working relationship? I knew damn well I'd only be working that job for a little while, and even if I hadn't known that, I could have said something before I left. Certainly there was time after I gave my two weeks' notice to tell her how I felt, yet I didn't, instead setting up this meeting outside a bar months after the fact.
I didn't want to feed the rumor mill? Christ, there's always going to be a rumor mill. People will gossip even if there's nothing to gossip about. And why the hell should I start worrying about what other people think of me? I've spent enough time being openly proud of not caring what others think of me that it's completely ridiculous that I'd cite that as a reason for not saying anything, and if there really was anything to that reason, I should have said something long before now, because this meeting is going to cause way more gossip than anything I could have said when we were still coworkers.
I'm chickenshit? Yeah, okay, there's some legitimacy to that, but if that doesn't qualify as an excuse, nothing does.
I didn't want to get in the middle of her other relationships? There's so much wrong with that one that I don't even know where to start. First of all, that dumps responsibility for my silence squarely on her, which is a load of crap if ever there was one. Second, it's not like any of the relationships I'd mentioned were all that serious. If they were, they wouldn't have come and gone so quickly. The fact that they did also meant there were plenty of opportunities to say something when she wasn't seeing anyone at all. Third, it implies that she was doing all sorts of things wrong, when we both know damn well she wasn't. She has every right to see whoever she wants, and she has every right to break it off with whoever she's seeing and start dating someone else. No wonder she interrupted me at that point. I should probably consider myself lucky she didn't turn around and hit me.
All this tumbles through my head, and I'm still left with her original question. What's the real reason I never said anything before? I consider for a moment longer, and then I look right into her eyes, open my mouth... and all I can manage to get out is a weak, almost mystified "I don't know."
It's the most honest thing I've ever said to her.
She looks to a point somewhere off to my right, considering, her tongue pushing out one side of her lower lip. Finally she cocks her head slightly to one side, says, "Mm," sounding contemplative and dismissive and understanding all at the same time, yet somehow remaining noncommittal through all that. Her expression is utterly inscrutable.
It isn't until she descends the last few steps and continues down the sidewalk that I realize I came to a stop while considering her question. I look after her for a moment, then hurry to catch up. I fall in stride beside her, and we continue for some time. There seemed to be an awful lot of silence for what was supposed to be a conversation, and I was getting a little weary of it.
On the other hand, the silence was a lot easier than talking.
Oh, fuck that, I decide. Being silent and playing it safe wasn't getting me anywhere in life.
"So," I begin, more hesitantly that I would prefer, "Is this a two-way street? That is, do you feel anything toward me, or"—I chuckle nervously—"am I just making a fool of myself here?"
I'm certain I should have phrased that better, but Alison doesn't seem to mind. She immediately responds, "No, you're not making a fool of yourself. You're not doing yourself any favors by trying to tell me how you feel when you don't even know how you feel, but you're not making a fool of yourself."
I wait for a moment or two, then prompt, "And?"
"And," she says carefully, "I like you, I enjoyed working with you... I was really surprised when word of this filtered back to me." She kicks at a rock on the sidewalk. It skitters along the concrete and disappears into the grass. "I was sort of surprised," she amends. "I had never thought of you as anything more than a friend at work, really."
That hurts, even though it's exactly what I was expecting. Certainly it was too much to expect her to say, "I've been in love with you ever since I first laid eyes on you." I wouldn't have believed that, anyway.
Alison continues, "It's still... I... How do I put this? I don't know that you and I would work as a couple, but—not to give the wrong impression here—you're not someone I would reject out of hand."
Well. I wouldn't put that on a card, but it's the first time anything outside of my own head has said, "This relationship is possible." That's got to count for something. I force a smile and say, "Far worse things have been said about me."
"I'm sure," she says, and then how that must sound, because she hastily tries to clarify it, sounding a bit mortified. "I mean, not that I mean anything mean—" She appears to replay that one in her head as well, because she frowns and looks confused for a moment. "Everyone has had things said about them that, that we, um..."
"I understand," I say, sparing her the further indignity of trying to explain it.
She nods, acknowledging the comment, then looks forward again. I'm expecting another silence.
"Do you love me?" she asks.
That one I have an immediate answer for, though I hesitate anyway, just to avoid being impolitic. I briefly wonder how she can ask such heavy questions with such apparent equanimity. She's asked me several, and the one question I asked her I could barely get out.
"No," I say. "I don't love you, Alison. I don't know you well enough to love you."
She doesn't even blink. "Are you in love with me?"
This time my hesitation is real. "I don't know that I would characterize it that way, either," I say, sounding stuffy and formal even to my own ear.
"But you're not saying you're not," she points out.
"In all honesty, I'm not a hundred percent clear on the different between 'Do you love me?' and 'Are you in love with me?'" I admit.
It looks to me like she's about to explain the difference, then thinks better of it. "More's the pity," she says enigmatically, and starts along the sidewalk back toward the bar.
I stare after her for a moment, trying to puzzle that one out, then follow her, jogging briefly to catch up. "What exactly does that mean?" I demand.
Alison rubs the bridge of her nose, looking briefly pained. "Please," she asks me, "tell me, what are we doing out here?"
I shrug. "Debating the semantics of 'love' versus 'in love'?"
Definitely the wrong thing to say. She glares at me, makes a noise very much like the noise she made to the idiots in the parking lot, and picks up her pace. I stay right with her. "I thought why we're out here would be obvious," I say.
She slams to a halt and spins to glare at me. "But what do you want from me?" she asks, sounding exasperated and frustrated and a little worn out. "Why am I out here freezing in a field outside a bar with you? What are you trying to accomplish?"
It's pretty clear this is do or die time. I don't have the luxury of waiting for the right words to come to me... Not that that approach has been working wonders so far.
What I finally say is, "You remember me telling you when my mother died, right?"
Despite looking utterly confused by this abrupt change of topic, she decides to go along with it, though she sounds a little suspicious. I can't really blame her. "I remember you told everyone," she says, "because Human Resources didn't want to give you paid bereavement leave. You were rather vocal about it."
"Right, right," I say dismissively, not wanting to relive that nightmare. "So I did tell you that. Did I ever tell you she married six times?"
"Probably not," I continue, not giving her the chance to respond. After all, I know damn well I never told her. "Yeah. Six times. Robert. Jared. Louis. Patrick. Luke. And Joshua. None of whom, for the record, were my father."
I sigh. This direction is a surprise to me, too. But, I have to see it through now. "Five of these marriages were within my lifetime, four of them I remember, and I was even in the ceremony a couple of times. I stood there and watched my mother swear to stay with him 'till death do us part,' and then I saw love turn to like turn to apathy turn to antipathy turn to hate, and then a divorce, a few more boyfriends, one that stands out, claims of love, another ceremony, another promise to stay with him 'till death do us part.' Again and again and again.
"I came to realize that she was terrified of being alone. Had no idea how to do it. Maybe with the early ones there was some sort of love—I was too young to tell, but by Joshua I could see plain as day there wasn't a drop of love for him anywhere in her heart. She didn't even know anything about him. Nothing of consequence, anyway. She just married him to not be alone. And because it was what she had always done at that point of her relationships and it probably never even occurred to her to do anything different."
I sigh again and shuffle my feet slightly, uncomfortable with this and unable to look Alison in the eye. "What I got out of all of this was to face other people with a strong dose of nihilism. If the strongest emotion is love, and the ultimate expression of love is marriage, and if my mother went through husbands like clockwork, then none of it could mean very much, could it?"
There's another long silence, and then she starts groping around for a response, so I continue. "I'm not telling you this as some sort of a pathetic ploy for sympathy, or so you'll talk to me out of pity. That's manipulative and it's beneath me. I'm telling you so that you'll understand why every time I've been interested in someone, I've thought of this parade of so-called fathers I've had and come up with an excuse not to bother. I don't tell people how I feel. I tell myself the feelings would eventually fade and I'd be left with nothing, just like my mother always was, so why even bother.
"And I'm telling you so you'll understand why I never said anything in all the time we worked together, even though I wanted to, and why I can barely say it now. And so maybe you'll understand why we're out here, and what a big deal it is that I'm here at all. I like you, I like what I know about you... I'm not looking for sex or commitments or promises. All I want is the opportunity to get to know more about you, who you are, and to show you who I am. And after that... Whatever happens, happens. But at least I'll finally be able to tell myself that, for once in my life, I tried."
I trail off here, having said everything I had to say, and far more than I had wanted to. I look up and make eye contact with Alison, who is standing speechless, looking a little overwhelmed. I can't say I blame her. Giving her a faint smile and a small almost apologetic shrug, I resume the walk back to the bar. I think she needs a little time, and she'll catch up when she's ready.
I wonder how that all came across. I honestly don't know how it sounded. Was it enlightening? Touching? Pathetic? Does she actually understand how big a deal it is that I'm trying to reach out to her? Can she appreciate how special that is? Or does she just see a guy who answered the question "What are you trying to accomplish?" with a semi-coherent rant about his late mother's sex life?
I grimace. That's definitely not the way to think about it.
I keep walking, wondering what must be going through her mind right now. I really hadn't meant to say all that. I'm not comfortable discussing it. But, it's all in the past now, said and done with forever, and dwelling on it won't change a thing. It's just that, when she asked that question... Well, she came all the way out here to hear what I had to say. She deserved an honest answer.
Doesn't really matter now. It's been said, and that can't be undone. As I think about it, I realize I wouldn't want it undone. I wanted to meet with Alison at least partly so that I wouldn't have regrets. I'm not going to regret what comes of it. It actually felt kind of good to be able to open up to someone about it.
I reach the parking lot. The rocks shift slightly beneath my feet. I stop and look up at the nearest light pole. The snow is still coming down, but I had stopped noticing it. I don't feel so cold anymore.
Someone puts a hand on my shoulder. I turn and look at Alison, who is looking at me like—I know it sounds clichéd and unnecessarily grandiose, but it's as if she's actually seeing me for the first time.
"You okay?" she asks me, sounding casual, but clearly not.
I nod. "You?"
"Can't complain," she says.
Words, such simple words, saying so much.
She gestures toward the bar. "Buy you a drink?"
I pause, considering it, which she misinterprets.
"Right," she says, realizing. "The smoke." She considers.
"I'm sure I've given you plenty to think about," I say. "If you'd prefer some time to think it all through..." I trail off. It comes off as magnanimous, generous, an offer not to drop any more emotionally heavy revelations on her tonight, but part of me is suspicious that another part of me just wants to escape.
Alison looks thoughtful. "Is there anything else that needs to be said tonight?"
I think of all the things I've rehearsed saying to her over the last few months, all the things tumbling through my head that I really want to tell her.
I think of Claire, waiting inside.
"No," I say. "Nothing that can't wait."
"Okay," she responds. "Look, maybe we could both use some time. Plus I'm absolutely freezing out here. Are you familiar with Mario's, up on Spring Street?" I nod. "Okay. How about we meet there for dinner a week from tonight? There's no smoking allowed," she adds.
"Sounds great," I tell her, meaning it.
"Perfect. Is seven PM good?"
"Um, let's shoot for eight," I decide. "I work till 6:30 in the new job, and getting there in a half an hour would be cutting it close."
She nods. "Well. Tonight's been quite a lot to take in," she says, displaying an impressive mastery of understatement, "but I'm looking forward to next week."
"See you then," I say.
"See you Friday," she answers. "Good night." She starts toward the bar.
"Alison?" I say abruptly, surprising myself.
She turns back. "Yes?"
I open my mouth and say—
God, you're beautiful
You're too good for me
I'm so afraid of where
I don't know what I'm doing
I wish I knew what
Come with me tonight
you were thinking now
How does a good night kiss sound
You intimidate me
I love you
Don't you dare tell
I couldn't bear it if you hurt me
You deserve better than me
I never have any idea
I know it sounds like a line, but
Don't leave me, ever
what to say to you
I won't change for you...
...but I'd be changed for the better by you...
—"Thank you. For being here tonight."
Alison smiles in acknowledgement and says simply, "You're welcome."
"Friday, then," I say, backing away, toward my car.
"Eight PM," she answers, and gives a dazzling grin and a big wave, and turns toward the warmth of the indoors.
I return to my car, get in, and quickly start it so that I can get the heat up as soon as possible. Odd that I'm feeling the cold now that I'm out of the wind.
I afford myself one last glance across the parking lot. Alison's out of sight, obviously as eager me to get warm again. That's okay. Unlike the last time I left her, on my last day at the old job, this time I know I'll be seeing her again.
And after that, who knows? Anything can happen. Maybe this'll work out. Maybe we'll crash and burn. There's no way to know yet.
I'm going to enjoy finding out.
I put the car in gear and drive out to the main road. There's no one in sight, so I pull out of the well-lit parking lot, onto the highway and into the night.