Suspended like an early ornament, the moon hung high in the summer sky, illuminating the freshly watered earth. The warm air was overflowing with the sound of chirping crickets; their rhythmic calls echoing off the bark of neighboring trees. And, as we made our way up the clay laden hill, I often thought about the months ahead.
We push hard against the chain-links, forcing a gap between the gate and the fence. She slips through with an awkward grace, but I can’t fit my head between the bars. While climbing up and over the fence, I pinch my toes between the metal squares and hit the wet cement on the other side. When we finally reach the water, she sits by the edge and I jump in like a kid at camp. Holding my knees against my chest, I take a quick gulp of air and brace for the watery impact.
It had rained earlier that day, but the water was still warm from the days before; which was nice. It felt like a warm bath of pool stew, but you could tell they used too much chlorine. As I come up for air, I run my hands through my dripping-wet hair and squeegee off my face. With clenched fists, I wipe the chemicals from my eyes and open them to the expanding darkness. I see the outline of her curly silhouette sitting against the moonlight, and swim toward her.
She sits quietly on the edge of the pool, splashing water on to her reflection. The ripples crisscross and overlap, distorting the watery image. As I swim the narrow distance between us, I take a shallow breath to say something, but she cuts me off with the weather.
"It’s really nice out tonight", she says in a whispered tone, "I’m glad we came".
Pulling to the side of the road, I find a parking space about a half mile from the bar. As I crack the door, the crisp cold air of winter seeps into the car and brushes against my unprotected cheek. The weather is a stale cold which would become snow if there were any moisture in the air. As I take my first few steps out of the car, I witness my shallow breath hovering in the frigid air momentarily before evaporating into nothingness. After a few minutes of brisk walking, I arrived at the bar around ten. Nearing the door, I approach the constant stream of smokers funneling in and out of the bar; tempted by the thought of smoking but quickly dissuaded by the frozen December air.
Stepping in from the cold, I make my way to the bar. Before I can take a seat, I’m hailed by a group of guys who I almost didn’t recognize as friends-of-a-friend of mine. From their confident smile and the urgency of their conversation, I could assume they were already drunk. Glancing over, I noticed the abundance of empty glasses on the table and I no longer had to wonder. They had either been there for a while or were drinking for a greater purpose. I decided both reasons were equally as likely and both reasons were good enough for me.
Leaning awkwardly toward the bar, not wanting to get too comfortable in my seat, I attempted to pass the time. Partially forced by social standards and somewhat legitimately interested in what these “friends-of-a-friend” had to say, we began talking through the usual routine:
“Yes, the weather is cold.” “No, I don’t really care for sports.” (Insert obligated laugh here)
“So what do you do? Me? Oh, well I…” “Nice talking to you too, I’ll see you later”. (No I won’t)
I can honestly say, If not for that one friend and those few happenstances where we crossed paths, I wouldn’t have been greeted at all. They would have been nothing more than strangers amongst the crowd of “young”, “hip”, and “fashionable” people who now call this bar their Mecca.
After a brief conversation, I double back to the bar, this time closer to the entrance so I could casually watch the door for some familiar faces. I make eye contact with the bartender and she is immediately aware of my presence. Walking over, she smiles generously as if she had rehearsed the look for hours before work. Smiling, nodding, agreeing with what I have to say and laughing if and when appropriate, she obviously has done this for some time. I order something dark (the usual) and without a second glance, she’s on her way to the tap. As I begin looking around, waiting impatiently for my drink, I notice the clock on the wall. Whether broken or purposely turned off, for as long as I can remember the time has always been set to a quarter past five. Never losing her permanent smile, the bartender returns with my drink in hand and I tell her to keep the tab open. Within a few short gulps, the glass I empty and my thoughts begin to fill the void. They say the first drink is always the hardest; they also say it’s the easiest.
Pulling my phone from my pocket, I notice the time: It’s 10:42PM. While waiting for what I hope is coming, I order another drink—make that two more drinks—and I begin to feel a buzz while scanning the bar for another distraction. Several tables over, a gaggle of giggling girls are sitting in the corner of the bar. One of them notices my gaze and I quickly find something, anything, more interesting to look at. The “friends-of-a-friend” from earlier are still drinking and across from them, at a table in the back, a young couple is drunkenly making out. It’s no Rodin, but it’s sure as hell passionate.
I’ve always found a kiss to be the most direct way to get to know someone. Whether they kiss hard and fast, soft and slow, it’s all just a physical definition of their personality. As I thought about what a kiss should feel like, I began thinking about the last time I received a good kiss. I’m not talking about a drunken, half conscious make out session with a stranger, but a real kiss with someone I actually like. I then thought about what kind of kisser I was and what that said about my personality. It had been a while, and I couldn’t exactly remember how long, but knew it was long overdue.
In an effort to appear busier, or at least less like a lonely drunk, I begin fumbling with my phone and have another drink to take the edge off. Raising the glass to my lips, I hear the door open and a cold breeze rips through my clothing. Normally, this wouldn’t bother me but as I look back, over my shoulder towards the door, I instantly recognize that smile. With a purse in hand and a look on her face which reminds me of a good book or an indie movie (none of that Hollywood crap), she commands my attention.
I can’t say I’m surprised to see her. Part of the reason I come to this bar is because there’s always that slim hope of running into her. The other reason is the alcohol, but that’s obvious. I wouldn’t say I feel awkward for coming to a bar under false pretenses but I’m certainly not the only one: The group of girls in the corner get dressed up and come to the bar to be fawned over; the “friends-of-a-friend” come to make conversation and get forgetful; the drunken couple comes to tolerate each other for another night; and I come here for her.
She walks in, each step set to the beat of the music playing loudly through the bar’s speakers. With my drink still in hand, I open my mouth to say something but without even a glance, she walks past me and towards her friends. For a moment, I forget she is the keystone in our friend-of-a-friend relationship; she is the friend. So, undeterred and slightly intoxicated by expectations, I grab my drink and walk slowly towards the group. As I approach the semi-circle of people standing in a clump, they begin to move away from the bar towards the back.
The young drunken couple from earlier are now sobering up and arguing over something petty. A few moments later, the girl leaves; her steps heavy with anger and amplified by the fine point of her heel. Her stumbling Romeo not far behind. With the space now cleared, we all take our seats and I eagerly greet my new friends hoping to get a seat next to her. To my chagrin, I’m left sitting at a separate table facing in the opposite direction. Looking to my right, I see a mutual friend talking to the person sitting across from me and explaining something vaguely interesting. After a few minutes of trying to catch up with the conversation from both tables, I stand up to get another drink from the bar. In a drunken hurry, I bump into the chair loud enough to embarrass myself and make eye contact with half the table. Smooth.
In an attempt to escape the conversation, I make my way to the overcrowded bar and carve out a place near the front. The bartender is talking to an older man who, from a distance, seems slightly more intoxicated than myself (if only slightly). As she talks to him, she begins to regurgitate the exact same disposition as before; nearly identical in every way and equally as effective on him. Waiting near the bar, I look over to the tables and notice an unexplained absence. Before realizing who was unaccounted for, I feel a slight nudge against my hip as I’m moved farther down the bar. Standing beside me in the starry low light of the bar, she looks at me and smiles so powerfully that Leonardo himself would be hard-pressed to recreate it.
(I don’t intend on finishing this story. In my mind it is complete, but with an abrupt ending. This was more or less an experiment to see what I could write freely and where my thoughts would take me.)
Walking through the off-white double doors, Mr. Peterson was greeted by a waiting room overflowing with every type of person imaginable. There was an eerie calmness to the room as not even a cough or sigh was heard. On the surface, the room was coated in an unhealthy yellow tint and the air had a dry, stagnant taste. There was a distinct humming sound as the dull buzzing of countless fluorescent bulbs burned in the background. Each person was sitting in a chair that was arranged in the infinite number of rows leading from the windows to the opposite wall. Although the room was overflowing with people, the only distinguishable sounds heard were the scribbling of pen against paper, the shuffling of turning pages, and the occasional crackle of a fluorescent bulb.
As far as he could see, the green and white tile walls were decorated with small windows; each with a small wooden ledge to lean against. Above each window was a pane of thick glass where the silhouette of a faceless figure stood. A few of the windows were visibly open while a majority of them seemed to be opening and closing at random. At each open station, the clerk seemed to be passing out clipboards with forms attached. Beginning to feel uncomfortable standing at the entrance, Mr. Peterson moved away from the door and towards the nearest open window.
As he made his way across the room, he noticed the floor was the same shade of green and white as the walls. With each step on the hard tile floor, the sound of his hard wood soles, echoed throughout the room with an embarrassing clarity. As he approached the window, he could hardly make out the figure behind the glass. The windows were positioned at an awkward height; clearly designed to obscure the view of the clerk. While Mr. Peterson was not a tall man, it seemed to him, you would almost have to be sitting on the floor, looking upward to catch a glimpse at the reclusive clerk through the small opening.
“Name?” Said the blurry figure in an androgynous, monotone voice.
“Excuse me?” Mr. Peterson responded in an uncertain manner.
“Name.” Repeated the voice in a louder and more annoyed tone.
“Um… my name is Howard Peterson. Can I ask what this is for? Really, I just want to go home. You see, I went to the store to pick up some milk for my wife and then the damndest thing happened. You see, I—”
“Please fill out these forms and someone will be with you shortly.” Said the figure matter-of-factly.
“What? No, I just want to know where I am. I’m not applying for a job, I just—”
An irritated sigh was heard, “Sir, please fill out these forms and someone will be with you shortly. Thank you.”
The small opening of the window slammed shut and the figure behind the glass stepped away. Mr. Peterson was left speechless by the strange and unusual conversation. Looking down at his clipboard, he noticed his name, date of birth, and other private and particular information already filled out. Discouraged by the terseness of the window clerk, he walked to the nearest seat and made himself comfortable.
The chairs were even more uncomfortable to sit in than they were to look at. The clipboard was a standard wood color. There were only a few papers attached to the front and a black pen was clipped to the top. The forms were numbered and each question was in the same format. Beside each question there were two boxes: one marked yes, the other no, and a small line was given for explanation if needed. “Question number one:”, Mr. Peterson read aloud to himself, “At age five, three months and four days, do you admit to stealing candy from your childhood friend, Susan Adams?”. Mr. Peterson, slightly confused by the wording of the question, furrowed his brow and marked no. “Question number two: At age five, three months and seven days, do you admit to lying to your mother about eating your vegetables?” Once again, Mr. Peterson was confused by the descriptiveness of the question and checked no.
For what seemed like an eternity, Mr. Peterson continued to answer each question, constantly in shock with the startling accuracy of the questions. “Question number two-hundred and seventy-four: At age five, six months and nineteen days, do you admit to hitting your childhood friend, Billy Turner?” Mr. Peterson marked yes to an event he faintly remembered. Looking around, he noticed that there were no clocks visible and no one seemed to be wearing a watch. As his eyes wandered around the room, he began to feel bored and a bit curious. He looked over to the person sitting to his right. The gentleman was much older and his hair was almost completely gone. He was wearing a gray pinstripe suit with matching leather shoes. Mr. Peterson glanced over at the stranger’s clip board and read one of the questions: “Question number sixty-five thousand seven hundred and forty-two: At age twenty-seven, two months and thirteen days, do you admit to lying to your wife about your whereabouts between the hours of…”. The stranger checked yes and moved on to the next question.
Feeling a tinge of fear, Mr. Peterson thumbed through his forms trying to get to the end but, no matter how quickly he turned the pages, the clipboard produced an endless supply of questions. In a bit of a panic, Mr. Peterson jumped from his seat and walked quickly toward the window. The clerk was still absent from the window so, in attempt to signal her, he began tapping loudly on the glass with his pen.
“Yes sir, can I help you?” Uttered the faceless voice in an obligated-politeness.
“Why the hell am I filling out these forms? What type of questions are these?” Said Mr. Peterson in an urgent and anxious matter.
“In order for us to place you in the proper department, we must have a full history. Please fill out each form in its entirety and, based on your answers, we’ll know exactly where to place you.”
“This is ridiculous; I’m not answering another damned question! Just tell me where the exit is so I can leave this Godforsaken place.”
“Sir, unless we have a full history—“Mr. Peterson slammed his clipboard against the wooden window ledge. “Look, I told you already, I’m not answering another damned question. Now are you going to tell me where the exit is or not?” As if uttering the magic words, the windows around Mr. Peterson slammed shut in unison. All the windows except for the one he was standing at.
The figure behind the glass paused for a moment and then preceded to hand Mr. Peterson another clip board with a single form and a red pen attached. “This is form #H32L4-U: By signing this form, you acknowledge all charges and suffer liabilities thereof. By signing this form, you may have your paperwork expedited for evaluation and proper placement. You agree to the following terms and…” Still upset but not in the mood to argue over the bureaucracy, Mr. Peterson quickly snatched the form from the clerk and signed and initialed in the proper places.
“There, now can you tell me where the exit is?” Said Mr. Peterson in a singsong voice. “Yes sir, please follow the red line to the double doors at the end of the hall and that will lead you to the exit. Have a nice day”.
Looking down at the green and white tile floor, Mr. Peterson suddenly noticed a solid red line leading from the window, through the waiting room, and to a pair of thick double doors at the end of the hall. As he walked through the aisle, he noticed the old man still filling out his endless supply of paperwork along with the rest of the waiting room. Never looking up, never speaking or acknowledging one another, it felt like he was walking through a graveyard. Passing through the heavy doors, Mr. Peterson looked up to read a strange inscription carved roughly above the frame: “Omissa Spe Intróitum Vos”. Ignoring the foreign graffiti, Mr. Peterson was more than happy to be leaving this hellish place and get home to his wife. As the doors shut behind him, a thin wisp of smoke was faintly visible before vanishing into nothingness…