Posted By: Arthur Wellesley<email@example.com>
Date: 16 February 2007, 5:28 am
For the quality of the hotel the bar was very fine. Situated on the thirty-first floor, it offered a stunning vista of the city bathed in its own light as darkness fell. Faux black leather chairs dotted the open floor space, divided roughly equally between two opposing television screens. One displayed a tennis match being played back on Earth while the other broadcasted a local news station. The former group emitted a low cry of excitement when a particularly good point was won while the latter occasionally broke out in subdued conversation over some headline. No one really paid any mind to the programs or each other, however. People interacted with each other in the superficial manner accustomed to those who know that this would be their first and last meeting. They wanted the comfort of their fellow man without the burdensome attachments that came with time. It was the meaningless companionship of the wonder-weary; interaction without connection.
He sat at the bar itself. Along its length sat a few particularly ragged looking sorts, brooding silently over their drinks, careful to leave an empty seat between each other. This group was composed either of newly initiated travelers, who did not yet recognize the comfort of small talk, or the veterans, who had no need of it. In either case they dedicated themselves wholly to the consumption of alcohol to blunt their loneliness and hardship; the small wall-mounted screen above the bar was a superfluous accoutrement. They rebuffed the barman's attempt at conversation and even strove to avoid eye contact, imagining in their drink-soaked minds that they were anywhere else but where they were.
Only a small pool of whisky was left in the dint at the bottom of his glass. He finished it quickly and slammed the palm of his hand twice against the dark granite counter, a gesture which brought the bartender over to him.
"A second, sir?" the man asked, brandishing a bottle of Irish style whisky.
He nodded. "Please." He savored the soothing sight of the thick amber liquid splashing around the bottom of the glass and filling it just past half. "Thank you."
The man, judging from his customer's gruffness his desire for privacy, left to search for another empty glass.
The whisky burned pleasantly down his throat and descended palpably into his stomach, bringing warmth and satisfaction to his body. A thin haze of smoky air drifted over to the bar from the lounge, scarcely noticed by its inhabitants except with lethargic annoyance that it diluted their saturation of alcohol. More people continued to drift in seeking an after dinner drink, some in parties but most alone. They would round the edges of their lives, unload their problems on a convenient and unreceptive companion, and stumble off to bed to do it all over again.
Having experienced this very scene so many times that it seemed almost rehearsed, he expressed mild surprise when he saw a woman sit in the seat to his right rather than at one of the empty tables of the lounge. She sat down with the practiced dignity one assumes in a strange place, feigning an easy nonchalance of her surroundings. Certainly she belonged to this crowd; her suit was cheap and she wore no notable jewelry. Yet she carried herself differently than the rest, with more confidence, less unease, and a certain inscrutable quality that set her above her status.
She was very attractive: the olive skin of her face was framed by soft chestnut hair. Her makeup and dress were simple, limited by money and time, though she maintained an elegant appearance aided in no small part by her natural beauty. Her overall look was that of a woman who made her own way in the world, driving through life rather than over it.
He admired her discreetly for a moment before looking closer at the profile of her face. Perhaps she saw him from the corner of the eye, or perhaps she simply perceived his gaze as one is able when they are being watched. In either case, she turned to match his stare.
"Do we know each other?" she asked with thinly veiled irritation.
"I believe we do."
Even before he spoke, her eyes narrowed with a closer study of his face. At last, her eyebrows raised in surprise as realization dawned on her. "Sam?"
He laughed in equal shock. "I don't believe it! Kathryn!"
She rose to her feet almost instinctively, and he did so in kind. After an awkward moment during which he began to extend his hand, she brought him into a warm embrace. His arms wrapped briefly around her soft shoulders, the scent of her hair penetrating the murky staleness of the bar, before they took their seats once more.
"My God," she said, slightly flustered, "I haven't seen you since
"Since high school."
"Wow. That seems like a different life now. Twenty years ago, I guess it's been."
He shook his head. "Unbelievable. Nothing should be 'twenty years ago.'"
She laughed. "I know what you mean."
The bartender approached her, somewhat surprised to see such an animated customer. "What'll you have, miss?"
"Um," she pondered, "I'll have a glass of Sauvignon blanc, please."
He tipped his glass to her after taking a prolonged sip to occupy himself as her attention left him. "Still a wine-drinker, I see."
A moment of silence, then,
"So what brings you here?"
She did not answer immediately and was further delayed by the appearance of her drink. It was clearly a question she was not keen to answer, yet its asking was inevitable, one of the few avenues open to a conversation between two people estranged by time. "I'm just here to visit family," she said vaguely. "And yourself?"
He sighed and rubbed the stubble on his face. "Oh, I'm here on business."
"You say that with such excitement," she said sarcastically, lifting her glass to her lips.
He shrugged. "This is my home: the hotel bar. My second home is the hotel room. I can hardly stand coming to these damn places, but what can you do? Permanence is luxury I can't afford."
"Permanence is about all I can afford," she countered. She was quick to turn the attention back to him. "What is it you do that keeps you moving around all the time?"
"I'm a sales representative for a private shipping company. Good thing the work is so exhilarating or else this hotel-hopping would be really painful."
She chuckled at this and seemed to be relax somewhat. Leaning back further in her stool, she took a more protracted drink of her wine. "Well, at least things can only look up."
He snorted good-naturedly. "Yes, how boring it would be to have money and security and a house." He looked over to her and they shared a smile. "So how about you? What are you into now?"
"I'm the manager of a communications center back home," she answered, this time without hesitation. "Which is of course a bullshit title to keep me from realizing I'm a paper-pushing secretary."
"Well, self-esteem of the worker is important for corporate synergies."
"Is that your slogan too?"
They laughed together. "Gotta love what you do," he said.
The effects of his first glass began to kick in, and the world seemed much less sharp and much more inviting. He drank more slowly, just to maintain the comfortable blurriness without turning it gray.
"How about your personal life?" she asked after a pause. "Did you ever marry?"
"I did. In fact, I loved it so much I did it twice." He wiggled a bare ring finger for her to see. "No children. Just alimony. You?"
"About the same, plus one. Do you remember Greg Douglas from school? Yea, he was the first."
He wrinkled his face in disgust. "You married Greggie? He was always a waste of space."
"He was an artist."
"No, he was useless. You're way too good for the likes of him, Kate."
"Yea, well, I ended up paying for that little error in judgment from the shallow depths of my own pocket."
"I'm sorry," he said, turning his eyes to his drink. It was approaching empty again.
"So am I."
"No children, though?"
"No. It never seemed
He cocked his head and smiled grimly. "Well, at least we got that right."
"Yes. At least we got that."
Outside the last light on the horizon had disappeared, replaced now by the shining brilliance of the rows of skyscrapers that lined the cityscape. Between them ran thousands of tiny specks of light, flowing indistinctly like a river reflecting the morning's sun. It was a sight that had its own beauty; darker and more forbidding than the sunlight yet also having the promise of peace and quiet before a new day began.
"Let us move to happier things," she suggested with a brisk shake of her head.
"There is little else that is happier than memories. So much better than the here and now."
"Isn't that the truth," she agreed. For a moment both of them ruminated over this, idly swirling their drinks in their glasses. "Do you remember our freshman year when we took drama?" she was the first to say.
He laughed and slapped the countertop. "My God, I had near forgotten! That old bastard Stanfield had almost slipped my memory."
"And remember our exam for that class? What play was it we were doing?"
"It was that awful modernized version of Still Stands the House."
"That's right! We spent most of the second half of that semester practicing those damn lines, making all the props, blocking the scenes—"
"It pretty much became the whole class."
"Yea, I know. Of course, over Christmas break, we forgot everything and had to learn it all over again when we came back."
"To quote you, I believe, our collective sentiment was 'Fuck that.'"
They shared a laugh at this. "I still remember that December as being the one of the most enjoyable of all my academic life," she continued, lost in her blissful reminiscence. "We all figured we would fail anyway and just had a blast in that auditorium. Stanfield didn't know what to do with us."
"Remember that ladder in the wings that led up to those abandoned dressing rooms used before the back hall was built? You, me, Jamie and Lara used to sneak up there and hang out."
"I do. We went there on our frees sometimes too, to talk and study. I loved it up there, it was so empty and private. And students had written their names and the plays they had acted in all over the walls back sixty years or more. It was like a little slice of history—our history."
"Of course, the exam was a disaster," he pointed out. "The four leads knew none of the lines."
"And on the day, when we got in trouble on the first scene, Jamie was just standing around so you whispered, 'Get the fuck off the stage.' Jamie thought you were helping him, so he blurted out
"'Get the fuck off the stage," he confirmed with a nod.
"Stanfield went ballistic! We all tried to carry on but we were lost anyway."
"Then the lighting cues were off and we were all in the dark for about thirty seconds
She was nearly breathless with laughter, alcohol and nostalgia lending the situation a great deal more humor than the situation had afforded. "Stanfield just screamed at us to go home, that the performance was done. By God, but he took that so seriously! It was freshman year, for Christ's sake!"
"I know, I know. The old bugger failed the lot of us, too. I was so furious at the time, I thought it actually mattered
"So did I. Lara took the course again the next semester, but Jamie convinced me otherwise. He never took anything too seriously. Turned out for the best in the end, really."
He shrugged. "Maybe. Who knows?"
"Yea. He dropped out junior year, actually, if memory serves—Jamie I mean."
The story came to an abrupt halt, both of them falling steeply from the high of the memory and returning to hardness of reality. She seemed suddenly embarrassed by her outburst of mirth and turned her attention deliberately to her drink. Both of them had graduated another glass, she on her second, he on his third. They had drained rapidly through the retelling as if the drink had fueled their memories, or at least made it more acceptable to remember in this place. Now the feeling was gone, and only the numbness of longing and alcohol remained.
"Good times," she said with a light smile.
Their conversation drifted onward from that point, desultory at times but comforting to both. Occasionally they would stray to the present, detailing the myriad problems they each faced in their lives and deliberating solutions that were only sound to the drunken traveler. Mostly, however, their concentration remained on the hallowed past, the great expanse of time blurring the bad and magnifying the good. Reminiscing over a time when responsibility had been an abstract notion rather than a reality eased the burdens of their situations. They each contributed to the remembrance of their shared experiences and did so with great vigor; the recollections were not always accurate but they were always gratifying.
As time went on, the flow of clients began to reverse. Those who felt sufficiently intoxicated and thought the hour agreeable to the avoidance of a wakeful night in a hotel gradually trickled out and were not replaced. Eventually, all who were left were the truly drunk, no longer entirely sure of their surroundings and contented for it. The chatter in the room became more subdued and indistinct and any pretense of attentiveness was abandoned. Instead, the people spoke to each other in rambling, incoherent monologues, parallel conversations that were prevented from merging by mutual inebriation. At some point they would be told to leave and somehow make it to their rooms; their memories of this night would have all the permanence of a sandcastle on a beach, soon to be razed by the inexorable tide.
"Unbelievable," she said vaguely.
"What?" he asked.
She had switched to martinis while he had switched to beer, with the effect that she became less intelligible and he more so. She held her liquor surprisingly well, however, and remained remarkably lucid.
"That we met here. You and me. What are the chances?"
He shook his head with a smile. "You never were very romantic. How about fate?"
She stared at him silently for a while after this, her eyes drowsy yet still sharp.
"What?" he asked again, exasperatedly.
"You and I were so close back then. We hung out together, studied together—we even made that stupid newspaper no one read, just so we could do something together. Why didn't anything ever happen between us?"
"It was because we were so close," he said simply. He swirled his beer without drinking it. "A healthy relationship is built on a nest of cozy lies. We knew too much about each other already."
"I had forgotten how you could turn crippling cynicism into an ineffable charm," she said with an unmistakably drunken chuckle. She quickly regained her composure, however, and her countenance once again become serious. "Did you never think about it?"
"Of course I thought about it," he answered earnestly. "Kate, you're beautiful, intelligent, and a delight to talk to. The truth is, you were the only person I could ever really relate to and I was afraid to lose that."
"Yea. So was I."
"After all, if I remember correctly, you were rarely short of companionship."
She seemed to judge for a moment the tone in which this was said and eventually decided that it was innocent in nature—time made many things trivial. She nevertheless veered from the accusation. "What I remember is that you wanted to be a lawyer when you got out of school. What ever happened to that?"
"The war happened," he replied quickly. "When the rebellion broke out, I was on Reach earning some money to get to university. I was drafted into the Marines."
"Oh—I didn't realize. How was it?"
" He paused, staring blankly ahead at the opposite wall for many moments.
"It's okay," she intervened hastily. "You don't have to
"No, no. Suffice to say, it was bad. I, uh
" He shook his head and moved on. "When I got out I was twenty-five. I had a high school education, no money, and no prospects. So I took the first job that crawled along."
She squeezed his shoulder consolingly. "That's too bad, Sam. I'm sorry."
"Just the way shit goes, I guess." He tipped his glass towards her. "What about you? I never really knew what I wanted to do with myself, but you were dead set on becoming a doctor. You had the grades for it, too."
Her happily intoxicated face darkened somewhat and she did not immediately respond. "My mom died," she said at last. "Just after you left."
"Oh, Kate. I'm so sorry."
"Just the way shit goes, right?" She sighed. "Anyway, I was left with my two brothers. I got some support from the state, but nothing much. I could have turned them over to someone, but I had no family left and I couldn't just leave them, you know?"
"So I had to support them somehow. The government actually did give me a pretty good job for my situation; reasonable hours and decent pay and all the rest of it. Not that it really mattered in the end, though."
"How do you mean?"
"The reason I'm here, actually," she admitted. "I came to visit my brother in prison."
"I hardly know what to say," he said, spreading his hands. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be. Obviously neither of us got what we bargained for."
"No. Evidently not."
Silence fell on their conversation once more. They were among only a handful still left in the bar and for the first time in the night he checked the clock on the wall.
At length, his companion laughed grimly to restart their conversation. "Do you remember that night during one of our dances when you, me, Lara, and Paul snuck away into our English classroom to get drunk?"
"I remember it well."
"We drank our asses off, talked seriously of all the things that mattered at the time, and left hours later through the window when we were locked in. I remember thinking so vividly that night, 'This is as good as it gets.' I didn't realize how depressing that would be if it turned out to be true."
"Come on, now. We still have a lot of living to do."
The reappearance of the barman spared her the necessity of a response. "Another?" he asked them, looking at their empty glasses.
She looked at her watch and grimaced. "I really should be getting to bed," she said
"Just the bill," he told the man.
He saw her reach into her purse and he quickly held up a hand. "Please, let me get this."
"What? No, I couldn't possibly ask you to—"
"I'm offering." When she looked ready to protest further, he continued. "Kate, I spend more time in these places than you can know. You being here tonight made this a night to remember and I—I would really like to pay for you."
"All right," she said. "Fair enough."
When the barman returned he paid him in cash and told him to keep the change. The man, unaccustomed to substantial tips, looked somewhat surprised.
"Thank you very much, sir. Have a good evening."
They left together; she tripped over the threshold but he steadied her with his arm.
"I'm drunk," she said.
"Just a bit."
The ride down on the elevator was silent; she pressed the number of her floor without a word. Both sensed their relationship was about to come to a close for a second and probably last time. There seemed no appropriate words to speak until their final goodbyes. When the doors opened, a visible jolt ran through her.
Awkward silence followed them on their short journey down the hall, each careful not the meet the other's gaze. When at last they reached her room, she turned around to face him with a fluttering smile. Her eyes darted nervously when she looked at him; all the renewed familiarity that had been established between them over the past hours suddenly evaporated.
"It's been a tremendous pleasure," he said formally.
"It was so great to see you again, Sam."
They embraced again, and while it was more fluid than their greeting it was somehow no less clumsy. His head rested gently on her shoulder—the scent of her hair was faint, but it replaced the alien smell of the hotel and overwhelmed him. She was soft against his skin, seemed to beckon him to a place he had abandoned long ago. It was with great reluctance that he broke with her.
She kept him close, however, holding onto the lapel of his suit and drawing his face near to her own. Her deep brown eyes seemed to look not into his own but past them. They were imploring, inviting, and enrapturing.
"I gotta ask how drunk you really are," he said as an involuntary grin began to spread across his face.
"Just a bit," she answered coyly.
She did not yet want to let go of him; or rather, she did not want to let go of her connection with the last thing that was good in her life. He was tied up in the pleasant memories of the immaculate past and what time was left here she wanted to spend with him. She was not ready to say goodbye to the bliss of reliving a life that no longer existed.
Neither was he.
The room was small but nicely appointed. It was clean, had comfortable furnishings, and sported a modest balcony. Nevertheless, it exuded an air of impermanence, an attempt at hominess that instead made it more akin to a hospital room.
She had the covers pulled up to her neck but left her legs exposed, intertwined with his. Her head rested on his chest. For a while he thought she was asleep, but eventually she stirred.
"I don't do this often, you know," she told him abruptly. "What you said upstairs
about my affinity for 'companionship.' I never
"I meant it in jest," he said. "I shouldn't have said it. I have nothing but the greatest respect for you Kate, honestly."
"This means more to me than you can know. After today, seeing my brother
I have nothing to go back to, Sam. No one to talk to. You might just have prevented me from losing my mind."
"Meeting you here was the best thing that has happened to me in a very long time."
She was silent a while longer. Then,
"In four hours I'm gonna have to catch that transport and get back to work."
She sounded miserable. He stroked her hair and breathed deeply so that her head rose and gently fell. "No point in worrying about such things now."
"You're right," she agreed. "I'll get plenty of sleep on the ferry. Might as well spend my last free hours awake." She swung her legs over the bedside and walked over to the tiny kitchenette.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
"Just getting some vodka." She retrieved a small bottle from the mini fridge. "Do you want some?"
He didn't answer. She tried to untwist the cap but it was stuck fast.
The bottle crashed to the floor, spilling its clear, viscous liquid over the cheap tile floor. His arm had closed about her neck with frightening speed; for a moment she was paralyzed by shock. As he started to forcibly drag her, the pressure of his forearm on her throat robbing her of air, the reality of her situation struck home. She was unable to scream but she kicked and twisted fiercely in his grip. She fought with desperate strength, but he overpowered her by sheer size and practiced skill.
He pushed the sliding door to the balcony fully ajar with his foot and pulled her with him. She writhed with terror as he brought her closer to the edge.
"I'm so sorry, Kate," he whispered into her ear.
He flung her over the railing. She tried to grab on to him but the inertia of her fall carried her quickly out of sight.
She must have screamed, but he did not hear her. He walked unsteadily towards the bed and sat with undue delicacy on its surface. Reaching into the pocket of his jacket which still lay on the floor he retrieved his phone. He dialed the familiar numbers.
The first ring had not yet completed when the phone clicked in response. There was no greeting for him.
"It's done," he said shortly. With this he closed the phone and threw it on the pillow. For a minute he remained sitting on the bed, gazing emptily at the sea of lights beyond the balcony. The sounds of traffic could be heard distantly below and a warm breeze blew on his face through the opened door.
A memory came suddenly, unbidden, to his mind. So vivid was it that for a moment he entirely forgot where he was.
He was sitting on a couch in a dingy basement wearing clothes of similar condition but unfitting class. His tuxedo was wrinkled and disheveled, the top of his shirt was unbuttoned, and his bowtie had been lost. On his shoulder lay the shuddering head of Kathryn as she sobbed uncontrollably, angrily. She looked ridiculous in her puffy black dress, following the conventions of the time and complimenting the attire of some forgotten boyfriend. She tore at the ruffles now in her furious sadness. He tried to comfort her but she both recoiled from his touch and pressed closer to him.
Didn't she know he had to leave? Didn't she know he was coming back?
He stood up slowly and started for the bathroom, gradually at first and soon with great speed. He heaved the contents of his stomach painfully into the toilet. When at last he could draw breath he collapsed on his side and desperately clutched the lavatory as if it would steady him from his vertigo. At length he began to recover and turned to lie flat on the bathroom floor.
It had not been done as it should have, and a voice inside his head began to tell him that he could not stay here forever. For a fleeting second he considered staying, though the thought was discounted before it was even considered.
The job was done and could not be undone. He did not decide who lived and who died. Instead, he would wipe the room down for prints, leave by the service elevator, and walk past the broken product of his work without looking back. He would forget that this had ever happened, that Kathryn had not lived the life she had wanted, that he had ultimately taken what it had become. He would forget the reminder that this had not always been his life and that he had once aspired to so much more.
He would forget that such happiness had ever existed for either of them.