The crowd around me was enslaved by the heavy bass and sporadic lights. Their winding bodies moved like a tangled mess of flailing limbs, starving for companionship and drowning in the stench of alcohol, cologne and cigarettes — the fragrance of blissful ignorance. The music was loud and repetitive, like a cicada buzzing in my ears. My vision see-sawed as an empty bottle slept in my hand. A couple (or maybe not) had their tongues down each other’s throats a few feet away.
The Embassy wasn’t my favourite bar. For one, it was next to an actual embassy; the owner must have thought he was being clever when he named it. I didn’t like the idea that real, relevant things were happening metres away from this place where small inebriated minds congregated without a care in the world.
The music was usually too loud but tonight I thought they could stand to turn it up a little. I could still hear myself think and that’s what I had come here to escape. A friend of mine had dragged me out tonight. He told me I needed to get out, forget about her and meet some new women. He said it’d be fun. At the moment, he had his hand up some girl’s skirt somewhere on the dance floor.
I was left at the bar with thoughts of her. After four years together, it had been only a month since she left; they say it takes 17 to heal, a sad statistic I happened to recall. She said we would’ve kept going until I tied the knot. And then she thought she should see other people. She likely already had.
Now I felt like tying a different kind of knot. Some people drink to forget; tonight I was searching for oblivion at the bottom of my seventh bottle. Heartbreak always seems like hyperbole until the pieces fall apart.
My friend’s solution for me was simple — so simple that I now see it was stupid. Find another girl just for the night, or the morning after if you can talk your way into her pants. It was a there’s plenty fish in the sea kind of thing. But I don’t think that ever works. You don’t replace a Porsche with a Prius and expect not to pine for what you had before.
I looked around. There were plenty of women with made-up faces and more easily made up minds about going home with someone tonight. What was I doing projecting my own misery onto the smiling faces around me? I left the crowd to find a stool upstairs near the bar and away from the dance floor, with a glass of whiskey on the rocks in my hand to replace the bottle I’d finished earlier.
The television was set to the news. The weather forecast said it was going to rain tomorrow. The perfect pathetic fallacy for a bad hangover, I thought as I looked down at my eighth drink of the night. I caught a few words here and there from the captions on the TV. Delegates had flown in to visit the embassy next door (something about signing something to end a war overseas). A man had been found with fatal stab wounds at a park not too far from where I lived. A Puppy Parade hosted by the animal shelter was taking place on Friday. The news juxtaposed all this in such away that the small happiness offered by these pretty puppies only accentuated the real tragedies happening around the world. It felt like it all happened in some other world, irrelevant to me.
“Christ, you’ve got a look on your face like somebody died,” the bartender remarked. I noticed I was the only one at the bar with her. “Did somebody die?”
“No, just a bad… day. Do I get a free drink?” I replied holding a half-empty glass in my hand.
“What? You think you’re special? Everyone comes here to forget. Work, stress, relationships. The pain may fade towards the bottom of the bottle, but it’ll be back in full swing when morning comes. No sir, time heals better than liquor. But don’t tell any of them that. It’d be bad for business.” She nodded in the direction of the dance floor downstairs.
I grunted curtly, hoping she’d get the hint and stop trying to make conversation.
“I’ve been working here a while and this side of the counter gives you a good view of people,” she said, rapping her knuckles on the wooden surface. “And I’ve seen that look of yours before, like a girl just got her teeth out of you and left with a big chunk of your life.”
“You think I’m that easy to read?” I asked, a little angry with myself.
“You hit the ground hard, didn’t ya? That’s just the way it goes. She makes you feel like you’re on top of the world. Then, next moment, you feel like burying yourself 6 feet under it. I guess that’s why it’s called fallin’ for a woman, right?” the bartender said as she poured a beer and scraped the foam off before handing it to someone. I’d come to the — away from the dance floor — because I figured I could be alone. But this preachy bartender proved me wrong. The way she talked, it didn’t sound like she was into men.
“How profound,” I said derisively.
“I’ve changed my mind,” the bartender said as she poured me a drink. “This one’s on me.”
“Thanks.” I was genuinely surprised.
“It’s not for you. Give it to that girl over there giving you the eyes. Before I give her a go.” She nodded towards somewhere behind me.
“I think I could use it more,” I replied with a faint smile, not even bothering to look as I took a sip.
“I don’t think so, buddy. I just don’t,” she said with her distracted gaze somewhere behind me.
“Well — ” I started, but stopped as I felt a cold hand slide over my neck, like ice but it was the softest hand my skin had ever known. I fought the urge, but I still shivered.
“Hi.” A voice whispered into my ear, and even amidst the music I could hear it clear as day. It was the kind of voice that made a man wonder how lush were the lips the words had rolled from, and how beautiful the face that wore them. I turned around and nearly turned to stone.
She had a smile like a shotgun, eyes that could paint a red dot on any man’s heart. I could tell this girl was fire, the type who only knew how to burn. Her raven hair flowed down her crimson dress like a river of night sky that drowned the day. Every impulse begged me to know her in all ways. She was the kind of beauty that no small words could frame.
I don’t know how long I’d been staring before she snapped me out of my reverie. “Do you dance?” she asked with an accent I could not place.
I don’t but I said yes. And somehow I was on my feet again, though I couldn’t feel the ground. Then we were on the dance floor though I couldn’t tell you how we got there. I felt like we must’ve flown.
This suspicious story had tragedy written all over it. But I didn’t care. The ecstasy she instilled in me had sobered me up only to leave me tripping on something more. This was euphoria.
Somehow my feet moved to the music and I was alive again. I felt like we had the kind of chemistry that cast sparks, lighting a fire that had gone cold in me. When moments before I’d forgotten how to want, now I wanted her. I wanted her more than I’d ever wanted anything. We danced and all the while she smiled that lethal smile of hers. She twirled around and her body winded up against mine. My hands felt as though they had a mind of their own as they found their way to her hips. No song in the world was long enough for this moment.
She took my hand and whispered that we should get out of here. Her distinct accent flavoured her voice like some foreign spice, and I’d do anything she asked me. I followed her through the side door, past the graffiti-stained bathrooms, and we were outside.
It was a cold night but my mind was somewhere away from the frigid air that bit at my skin, as my back was to a wall with her pressed up against me. I should have questioned it. I should have.
We seldom knew each other’s names but we had the infant night for us to play passion’s game. She broke away first and as I breathed heavily I asked for her name. She leaned in as if to tell me, and instead withdrew a small metal box from I don’t know where. It was a black box with ornate designs of different serpents wrapping themselves around it. The lid had a silver border that led to a keyhole on the box’s front.
“Could you hold onto this, please? It’s very important to me. I’m going to the corner to buy cigarettes. I’ll be back in 5 minutes.” She paused before saying, “Don’t open it”.
I opened my mouth to stop her from leaving but nothing came out. And as she turned to leave, leaving nothing but this box and a burning yearning for her as I watched her heels turn, it dawned upon me: she was as best as asbestos for me.
I leaned up against the wall of the alleyway with only a stiff fly sitting in a spider’s web to keep me company. And I waited, turning the box over in my hands with my thoughts on her.
Five minutes passed. Then half an hour. A full hour too. In that time, my impatience caught up to my curiosity. I wanted to know more about this woman, and all I had to go on was this box in my hands. I noticed she didn’t bother to lock it and looked to the mouth of the alleyway for her to return. I waited ten more seconds. Then I decided to take a peak. I lifted the lid, and it opened too easily.
All I saw was a bright light, heard a thunderous boom, and felt the flames as they ate away at my body, the buildings on either side of me crumbling in a column of fire. I found myself scattered across the debris of the bar and the embassy as they were leveled by the blast. And during this chaos the smell of charred flesh and the searing white heat, the rumbling of crumbling concrete, the feeling of all life being purged from me. I had time only for one thought: I never knew her name.