This story is by Bart Mann and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Stumbling down a street drenched in sodium lamp light, I had nowhere in particular to go. Thanks to a glutton’s share of Irish whiskey, I wasn’t going there fast.
My route was close enough to the beach to smell the brine and relish the nip of marine air. I loved the ocean and I had often wished I was born into a sailing family. On this night I might have considered abandoning ship and diving into the frothy deep.
Alas if only I had the courage of a sailor… or courage of any kind. Turns out I had nothing left but a broken heart and a sad tale to tell. Boy meets girl, boy gets girl, and then boy gets the old heave-ho. It was a tale of the ages and I imagined bygone lovers splitting like atoms along spirals of time leading up to this night and this boy.
At some point my blundering drunken march led me towards a homeless man sitting on a low wall. He was staring intensely at the twinkling of the few stars a big city sky allows to shine. Something about him resonated in my addled mind. I wandered over to wish him a good evening.
“Unhh,” he replied, leaving the meaning or intent of his utterance up to interpretation. Lonely for conversation I took the grunt as both a return greeting and an invitation to open up and tell him my woes.
There I stood, bemoaning my shanked heart to a man who might not have eaten that day. I might have done him better offering up a cup of coffee or some spare change. But oh what a saga I had – bursting with passion and intrigue, love and betrayal, sacrifice and surprise.
She had showed up at my bedroom window at 3 in the goddamn morning. How she knew where I lived or that I lived alone or which particular window to knock on was a mystery.
I had only introduced myself to her earlier that day. I wanted to tell her about a dream I had the previous night. Although I didn’t know her other than having seen her around the building where I worked, she had been prominent in the dream.
She appeared less than thrilled about the interruption of her lunch but bade me to continue. To my dismay, as I told her the sequence of events in my dream she began to cry.
The dream itself seemed interesting but innocuous. We were sitting in the back seat of a Cadillac being driven rapidly along a mountain crest by an unknown driver with a scruffy face and dark unkempt hair. Eventually he missed a curve and sent us all sailing over the mountain’s edge. As the car crashed and careened this woman and I were ejected from the vehicle, whereupon we each turned into a different color of paint. We spilled and splashed together down the side of the mountain and eventually combined into a new color altogether.
Weeping at that point, she quickly excused herself and I was left feeling guilty without knowing why.
Later at my bedroom window she explained why she had cried. Her brother, a young man who fit the description of the driver in my dream, had recently broken his back in a serious car accident. One in which he drove a Cadillac off the side of a mountain.
The homeless man looked quizzically at me and said “You’re shitting me, right?” I told him how I wished I was, as this uncanny psychic exchange marked the beginning of the journey to my heart’s undoing. It drove her to my window to rouse me from my bed. It prompted long talks walking through nearby abandoned railroad tunnels. And then of course it marked the onset of our illicit affair.
I say illicit because she wasn’t exactly single, even though her relationship with an abusive boyfriend was already at the beginnings of its end. Nonetheless we connected so soulfully we found ourselves desperately drinking each other in. I swear we lit up in the dark. My friends told me that even their pulses raced when they watched us together. Our passion was palpable and unrestrained. It was spectacular.
“So how’d you fuck it up,” asked the homeless man whose name I learned was William, “because every guy throughout the history of the world fucks it up somehow.”
I was annoyed by his assumption that I was the one who had burned that tender house down. But I couldn’t argue with his basic sentiment which seemed like a concrete truth in my liquid brain that night. I let out a long laugh which unfortunately congealed into a deep sob.
William patted me on the back and said, “My friend, the streets are lined with men put under the bridge by a woman; you don’t need to carry that weight alone… though you won’t be the last to try.” He spoke with warmth and empathy and his dusty charm soothed my agony.
“How about you William… are you out here on this wall by way of ruined love?” I asked. Sporting a wide grin he pulled a small bottle out of his coat pocket. Tightly sheathed in a brown paper bag it smelled strangely like peppermint schnapps. He took a long drag and said, “You finish first friend – how did your world collapse?”
“One night she told me I made her happier than anyone ever had, that her every moment was filled with joy and that her heart was virtually giddy with song,” I said. “I was exhilarated by her words for I had long dreamed of such a thing, such an honest, torrid love. And there she was, a dream made flesh and blood… declaring the power of our linking. I loved her so deeply in that moment I was lost in her.”
But that perfect moment lasted seconds before slamming into her next disclosure. It slithered out of her mouth like a snake on the hunt. “But the thing is,” she said, “this isn’t what I want in life, this ecstasy. It dulls my senses; it diminishes the attention I must pay to the harsh reality of the world around me. I love you but the love is too much for me. It changes me in ways that make me feel incredibly happy and I guess I just don’t want to be that happy.”
So she went back to the boyfriend who needed to beat her to get off. I suppose he was the means by which a tragic world could lay its hands on her and make her feel the pain she needed to understand. Exactly what it was she needed to understand was something I could never figure out.
“And that’s that,” I said. “I loved her profoundly and to my dismay, the fact that she loved me back is why she killed it. Her love was devoured by her misery, and she left me stunned, with nothing but boundless misery of my own. ”
William took another swig then offered me the bottle. Whatever it was it didn’t taste like peppermint schnapps. “That’s the insidious nature of things,” he said, “because if for some reason the man doesn’t fuck it up, surely the woman will.”
I nodded then said, “Your turn.”
So William related his life story, from babe to bum. He’d been born an only child, privileged and perfect – a golden progeny with bright eyes and sharp intellect. His mother and father loved him but sadly not each other, as his father kept having unhidden affairs. Their divorce in his formative years informed his belief that somebody always fucks things up, and that somebody is usually the man.
This perception worked like a cancer on his soul as he went through life specifically avoiding any intimate involvement. He experienced love of a kind once; she was a girl from around the office where he worked. Once he met her, his unspoken adoration fueled a sort of one sided thing that resembled a relationship but was ultimately too inadequate to survive. After that, he never ventured near romance again.
His increased isolation and loneliness led him to drink, and drink led him to ruin, and ruin led him to that wall on the night I came stumbling by.
“So you see I fucked it up by being afraid of fucking it up,” he said. “Now here we sit… a couple of saps staring at the night sky; one who loved too hard and one who never loved at all. Different men put under the same bridge.” Then he said, “Chin up friend, you’re still luckier than me. Because when you look up there,” he pointed to the sky, “you ache because maybe you can see her face in the lights or hear her laughter in the breeze. Me, when I look up there I ache because I see nothing but empty space… nothing at all.”
We sat there alone together, drinking.