Maria R. Rathje
Jack comes towards her, smile lighting up his face as he takes his customary place beside her at the bar. She smiles at him and turns to order his usual drink.
The bar is the definition of smoky; everything seems to exist underneath a film of grey. The three lamps are turned down low by the grey dust on them and the light doesn’t reach the corners of the bar. The jukebox at the far end of the room is a matte red. When no one puts quarters in, the bartender likes to listen to old crooners. Tonight, Sinatra. Come Fly With Me...
‘It’s a long time since you’ve been here,’ Jack says. Takes a small sip of his oh-so-cliché whiskey.
‘I’ve been abroad,’ she says. It’s true, after all. Four months in America that made her desperate for England.
‘So I see,’ Jack nods, his eyes rest for a moment on her new boyfriend sitting at one of the tables, talking loudly, this brazenly American creature in the middle of all the British.
‘Who have you spent time with? Jane?’ She remembers him talking about Jane at some point. He laughs shortly, raising his eyebrows.
‘Hardly,’ he nods at Jane’s daughter, ‘that one.’
Her eyebrows almost disappear underneath her heavy, American fringe. He notices and reaches up to touch it. She lifts her glass and takes a sip. He goes down to talk to Jane’s daughter and leaves her alone.
She leans against the bar, feeling the wood against her shoulder blades. The bar is made for tall people; she’s not tall.
It reminds her of how she first met Jack: He stood behind her in line for the bar on a crowded evening; everyone was pushing against the bar and waving at the bartender. Jack squashed her and she cursed at him, he looked down, laughed and bought her a drink. The lamps were whiter then but they found a table where the light didn’t reach. It had been one of those rare times when you meet someone and you don’t look at your watch until four hours later when you realise you must be getting home. Then, he had walked her home very slowly. The next time they met at the bar, he said, ‘good evening,’ and bought her another drink. She didn’t like whiskey then and he didn’t like it as much.
Sighing, not knowing where the decade went, she realises it’s getting late. Jack comes back to the bar and they stand there in silence for a while with Sinatra in the background. Jack looks at her.
‘Come home with me?’
She shakes her head; the motion somehow indicates the American. Jack shrugs and goes down to talk to someone else. Soon the American wants to go home but she stays.
Jack puts an arm around her and rests his thumb at the nape of her neck.
‘Don’t.’ She pushes away from the bar and they go down to join their friends.
At 2 am, the table is empty and Jack again says ‘come home with me.’ They go to his place, walking slowly.
‘Look, it has nerves,’ he strokes the small, nervous looking plant on his windowsill and it contracts, seeking protection. She likes the plant but it creeps her out, every time the leaves unfurl he scares it again.
‘Stop, please,’ she says and takes a step back. He follows and leans in to kiss her, softly, slowly; the American is on the edge of her consciousness.
‘I shouldn’t,’ she says, every time they break the kiss, as a refrain.
Next morning she does his dishes, just to be polite and she tries to make her fringe lay flat even though the weather is damp. She goes home to the American and says, ‘It got too late to go home’ and ‘Nothing happened’ interchangeably for a while, until the events blend into the dull wallpaper of their shared life.
‘It’s a long time since you’ve been here,’ Jack says when he sees her at the bar a few weeks later.
She loves how ‘a long time’ is so relative, so easily adaptable to the current situation.
His nervous plant is dead and she misses the movement in the windowsill when they lie in the bed underneath it.
The American takes her to America again and she meets his parents. They stay for nearly a year and she almost forgets the grey light at home. When they get back she goes to the bar; the jukebox is still playing Sinatra and the lamps are greyer than ever.
‘It’s a long time since you’ve been here,’ Jack says and it is true. He is standing by the bar, for once it is him who is alone and waiting. She nods and when he doesn’t say anything else she says, ‘I’m engaged,’ and shows him her ring.
‘I’m married,’ he says and they exchange mandatory smiles, ‘and I’ve missed you.’
He touches her fringe and she is distracted by the ring on his finger that hovers around her eye.
‘You can walk me home if you like.’
‘Nah, honey. I don’t do that kind of thing anymore.’
He puts his half-full whiskey glass down and pats her shoulder.
‘I should go home.’ He looks happy and she tries her hardest not to look after him when he leaves.
She stands there for some time, drinking slowly. At home, the American is waiting and he looks happy in the same, calm-as-fuck way as Jack but she doesn’t want to see it. She stays up late to avoid his eyes on her neck as he falls asleep. She sits in the dark kitchen, finishing a bottle of whiskey that Jack gave her once for a birthday, perhaps. She can’t remember now.
‘It’s a long time since you’ve been here,’ she mutters and stands up.
She breaks three pieces of chalk trying to write ‘sorry’ on their small blackboard in their small hallway. Then she leaves her engagement ring and her keys and closes the door silently behind her.
It is night in Paris. The light of the moon shines on her crinkled bed. She keeps one of the small plants with nerves on her windowsill now, just to remind herself how it is done. The unfurling. The retreat. The quivering middle point.
Previously published in the UKCCWS Illustrated Anthology Vol. 4 (2017).
Maria R. Rathje is a writer of short stories and novels. She loves Jane Austen, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, drinks tea as if she was paid for it and gets her best ideas on walks. She travels as much as possible while studying English at the University of Copenhagen. When not writing or reading, she loves going to the cinema and sleeping in. You can find her weekly-ish musings on mariarathje.com