By Alicia U. <email@example.com>
Submitted: October 2004
Summary: A man reflects on the past twenty years.
In a small, dimly lit bar, a man sat alone with his glass in hand. He swirled his drink and took a large gulp. "To twenty years," he mumbled, already half-gone, but he obviously wasn't planning to stop any time soon.
"What's that, Mac?" A short old man looked over the bar into his lone customer's eyes. He took a cloth and wiped some liquid from the bar. They didn't often get customers so early in the day.
The customer smiled emotionlessly. He wiped a hand over his bald head and played with a small frock of silver hair on the back of his neck. He shrugged. "It's been twenty years," he said, but he didn't elaborate.
"Twenty years," the bartender repeated, but he didn't prod any farther. This customer, like so many others in the past, was wallowing in regret of a time long ago. In all of the bartender's time behind the bar, he had learned that a troubled man would always spill his troubled life story eventually if given enough time. Bartenders were like catch basins for all of man's emotional runoff.
The customer downed the rest of his drink and slammed his glass back on the bar. "Get me another one, buddy."
"Do you have anyone who can drive you home?" The bartender took the cup away from the bald man and put it down behind the bar. "You've had quite a few already."
"Huh, drive me home." The man sighed and closed his eyes momentarily before opening them again. "Six beers. Three shots. Not enough. Not for this. Not today."
The bartender shrugged, purposely ignoring the man's request for more alcohol. "You wanna tell me what's bothering you that you're here at 1:00 on a Monday afternoon?" That was what he was there for. He would always be the amateur psychologist, makeshift sounding board, and temporary friend.
"Gimme another," the man growled. "It's my anniversary. I'm here to celebrate." He frowned, and said, "Tequila. Straight up."
Against his better judgment, the bartender pulled out the tequila bottle and poured another shot. "Here ya go, man."
The bald man wordlessly took the drink and gulped it down, only barely wincing as the hard alcohol slithered down his throat.
"Salt? Lime?" The bartender turned around with the lime wedge in his hand. "Guess not."
The bald man shook his head. He coughed a few times, but he didn't seem fazed. His words came out slurred when he said, "What's you're name."
"Bob," the bartender responded. He took the glass from his customer's hand and put it behind the bar for good. "Can I get you something to eat?"
"Bob, let me tell you about anniversaries." He threw his hands into the air and leaned far back on his stool so it teetered and almost fell.
Bob nodded. He set a bowl of mixed nuts in front of the drunk man. "What about anniversaries?"
"Twenty years." The man covered his face with his hands. "I can't believe it." He brought his hands down and stared at his left ring finger. "It seems like only yesterday."
"Time flies," Bob interjected. He set a cup of water down in front of his lonely friend. "Time sure flies." He didn't know what anniversary it was, but Bob was sure it was painful.
"I left her, Bob," the man said softly. "I left her."
"Today?" He prodded the man to shed his emotional burden.
"Twenty years ago today." He took a deep breath. "I walked away." The man grabbed the water and took a large swig, not noticing it wasn't alcohol. "I walked out the door and never turned back."
"Ellen," he said softly, still staring at his ring finger. "In some way, I really loved her. But I left her. I left them. For what?" He slammed the glass down and some water spilled onto the bar.
"Buddy," Bob said in a forceful tone. He wasn't sure why his tone had changed so abruptly, but it didn't have anything to do with a little water on the bar. Could the customer's words have hit too close to home?
"Sam," the man interjected. "My name's Sam."
Bob and Sam had more in common than either would ever know. For as much as the bartender was a counselor, he did not want to spill his own soul. Bob allowed his lips to turn into a small smile. "So, Sam," Bob began, "why did you leave?"
Sam shrugged and shook his head. "I don't know." He closed his eyes and brought a hand up to cover his face. "No reason. So many reasons. It was too much, but too little. It was too perfect with so many imperfections." Sam opened his eyes and stared emotionlessly into the other man's eyes. "It was so hard."
"So hard," Bob said in a voice no louder than a whisper.
Sam downed his drink before he said, "And everything else seemed so much simpler."
"And you thought leaving would solve everything?"
"No, Bob, that's not what I thought at all," he slurred. "When I walked out that door, I was free. But I was trapped." He angrily shoved a few nuts into his mouth, and chewed them loudly.
Bob pushed a few stray nuts off the bar. "It wasn't what you expected?" Life without love was never what you would expect. His life wasn't what he expected. And Sam's probably wasn't either. Life was always unexpected.
"No." He rolled his eyes. "It was exactly what I expected. I was free." He threw his hands into the air and pulled them apart. "I broke my shackles that had confined me for so long. I got the freedom I had always wanted."
Sam tilted his chair back and a grin spread across his face. "No responsibility. No wife. I was free. It was what I always wanted."
"Was freedom worth losing everything else?"
"I could have anyone I wanted and I had nothing to tie me down." His voice got louder with each word. "But I also missed so much. It wasn't perfect."
"Nothing's ever perfect." Life's perfection depended on expectations.
Sam's shoulders visibly sunk. "It should have been perfect." He took another sip of his water. "What the hell is this stuff?"
"Vodka," Bob answered automatically.
"Weak." Yet he still took another sip. His voice dropped so it sounded like he was no longer talking to the bartender. "The rain was pouring that night. Ellen and I had been fighting again. They were upstairs, but I know they heard it all. Every word. The fight to end all fights. We didn't even yell. I didn't even take an umbrella. But I told her I couldn't live like that, and that was the end. She didn't argue. I didn't say another word. When I took that final step out of our house, it was the last step that had ever meant anything in my life. The rain was so cold and so hard, but I didn't care. I let it keep falling on me because I was free."
Bob interrupted, "Did you love her?"
"Of course I love her." Sam caught his mistake. "Loved her. I'll always love her. But it wasn't about love." He took another large sip of his water and then he said, "Choices. We both made such bad choices. Women. They were one-dimensional." He took a deep breath. "They were easy."
"Meaningless sex is never easy." Bob shook his head and turned his head away so he wouldn't have to look into his customer's eyes.
"Meaningless sex is always easier," Sam disagreed. "And so addictive." He finished his drink and slammed the cup down on the table. "Make the next one something stronger."
Bob took the glass and refilled it with water. "Addiction takes over your mind and your heart," he said knowingly.
"Women," Sam said loudly. "When I was with them, anyone else, I wasn't the same man. I wasn't the man I hated. I was the man I had always wanted to be. No strings, no commitment, no children."
"Children?" Of course he had left children.
Sam nodded. "Two children. Lois and Lucy." He paused for a moment and then continued, "They were so young."
"Twelve and eight," he said softly. He took another sip of his water then brushed his hand across his lips.
"Twelve and eight," Bob repeated.
"Now they're all grown up. They've grown up without me. Completely without me. Because I was selfish." Sam pulled his wallet from his back pocket and clumsily opened it to reveal a worn picture of two little girls. "I remember them like this."
"They're beautiful," Bob said. It was the obligatory comment, but it was true this time. These children looked like little cherubs. He had trouble understanding how this man could have left them.
"They are," Sam said quietly. "And I don't even know them. I didn't want to know them," he said softly. "They weren't perfect."
"No child is ever perfect."
"I wanted a boy." Sam took a deep breath. "I wasn't prepared for a girl. And it ruined my image of my perfect life. And now they have lives of their own and no use for me. And why do I blame them?"
Bob shook his head, but didn't say anything. He let Sam continue.
"They are well-adjusted adults now. Productive members of society. No thanks to me. Lois, she has a successful career and a happy marriage." He took a deep breath. "Well, Lois is well- adjusted. Lucy is … trying to find herself."
"Do you think it's your fault?"
"I don't know," Sam said quickly. "I try not to blame myself. I sometimes have trouble looking at them. Maybe that's why I left them, too …" He looked up at the ceiling and didn't say anything more.
"Why?" Bob wanted to keep the conversation going
"They looked just like her. Ellen. They both had her face." He sighed. "I couldn't look at them because they just reminded me of her."
Bob took the now-empty glass away from Sam and put it behind the bar. "So you left?"
"I had to get away. I was going crazy cooped up there." Sam stood up angrily and faced the bartender. It was almost a challenge.
"Your wife and kids were trapping you?"
"We were both trapped. It felt like the world was turning and we were staying in one place." He took a few wobbly steps away from the bar, then turned around and said, "We were both trapped."
"And now you're free? But at what price?"
"Everything," Sam said simply. He took a few bills out of his wallet and tossed them at the bartender. "We tried to reconcile once, but it didn't work. There will always be too many hurt feelings and too many scars that will never fade."
Bob picked up the money and nodded.
Sam continued, "We're both getting old. And as each day passes, I just get older. I'm not gonna change. I don't regret what I did. I don't regret a thing. And I can't ask my kids to accept me when I never accepted them. It's too much to ask."
"It's never too much to ask. The worst they could do is say is 'no'."
Sam shook his head and stumbled towards the door. He looked over his shoulder before he left the bar and said, "It's too late."
Bob watched the man disappear into the city and he felt a presence behind him. He turned around, and a grin spread across his face when he saw the tall, white-haired woman in the doorway.
She came up behind him and kissed him softly on the cheek. "Hey, honey. I thought I heard someone out here."
Bob turned around to face his wife and brought his lips inches away from hers. "It's never too late," he said simply. "Never."
"Never," his wife repeated. "We both know that."
She knew exactly what he meant. Fifteen years ago, it had all nearly ended. But it hadn't. They had made the choice to stay together after almost a year apart. He had made a different choice than his customer. He had understood what he was missing. He'd had the courage to admit that he was wrong. And his life was all the better.
"I love you," Bob said softly. "And I love Mary, Bobby, David, and Michael."
His wife leaned down and kissed him on the lips. "We're all glad you came back."
"It's never too late," he whispered.