This is my submission for this year's Valentine's Day contest. Since I got only done in the last moment for submissions, I didn't have the time to give the story to an editor anymore - and considering that I am not a native speaker of English, I am sure there are some mistakes in it. I hope you forgive me for those. Once the contest is over I might have the story edited, but I wanted to participate...
I submitted the story into the Romance category, because I thought that is the category that comes closest to fitting the story. However, I don't write my stories by category, so not everyone might see it as a "real" romance story - it is just a story, and I hope you enjoy it.
We are all relationally disturbed. We are all emotional wracks in some way or other. I suppose, it is part of the human condition. We might just not realize it.
Sean and Julia and Rubén and I sit together every Friday night in Sean and Julia's shabby little kitchen, to discuss how fucked up all of our friends are. We much prefer this to going out into town, into the pubs that burst into existence in our once quiet little street as of late. We are crinkling our noses at this neighborhoods new fashionability, as we sit around the heavy oak kitchen table drinking beer and throwing out opinions on any and everyone we know onto the table like trumps in a card game.
Everyone has problems; there isn't anyone who has figured life out. Whatever you do, we can analyze you into a state of deep socio-emotional trauma. If you have too many flings, you surely can't commit. If you have long spells of being alone, you are unable to even connect to people. If you have a new serious relationship, just after the old one ended, you surely are scared of being alone. And if you've been with the same partner since school days, you are much too dependent on them.
We love to shred to pieces every bit of conversation we have had with anyone we know, take their lives apart until only the foulest, darkest, shrillest moments and most unwise decisions they ever took remain. We take everything that happened out of its original context and put it into a new one, lining up reasons and drawing conclusions, always following a logic that is so brutal that no counter argument could convince us of it being untrue.
We do not only know who did what with whom, but we shout out the childhood trauma we suspect behind it, between sips of beer, fall into each other's word in a hurry to prove that the most unhappy of our acquaintances are to be blamed themselves for their misery, but it is not even their own fault, but their parents', do they not know what they do to their children, or no, in reality society itself is behind it, the system fucked them up, and that is the truth behind it, that they are fucked up, damaged beyond repair, they will never reach happiness unless they free themselves completely from their personality and circumstances -- but that will never happen, they will go on blaming everyone else, when really... and do you know who else...
In the pale light of Sean and Julia's kitchen, our faces turn an eager red as our voices rise to a level the neighbors wouldn't accept at this time of night any other day of the week, but today is Friday, and everyone but us is out to celebrate the arrival of yet another weekend. Our voices form a concert of insult and arrogance, a shrill staccato of screams flying across the table like the saliva out of our mouths when we get too eager, mingling in the air, creating a slimy sea in which we drown any positive notion for anyone we care about.
As the level of alcohol in our blood rises, and we finish the last peanuts or potato chips or whatever other unhealthy snack we chose to accompany that week's feast of gossip, the conversation slows down, and certain gaps appear, during which we stare out the dark window, wracking our brains in search of yet another acquaintance, anyone we ever met, that we could rip apart next. We have gone through all our friends -- most of whom we don't see often, and some of whom avoid us more and more, as if they could read the contents of our fridaily discussions in our eyes -- and work colleagues and relatives and acquaintances, and suddenly we notice a certain emptiness in the air, as we are out of things to talk about.
And then, just to fill the emptiness, just to have something to say, I mention meeting one of my ex boyfriends recently, and how something he said or did indicated that he is surely not over me yet, poor thing, and how his obsession with me must mean that...
From the silence with which the others react to my statements I know they don't agree. Julia then takes up her courage, and reminds me, that even my last ex has broken up with me more than four years ago, and in response to this I realize suddenly it is time to go home, I am in a hurry.
On my way down the stairs I take revenge by having my own thoughts about them: Do they think I do not notice how Rubén stares at Julia all throughout the evening? And how every Friday she offers him to stay on their sofa, since he has a long way home? With a grim satisfaction I imagine her sneaking off, as soon as Sean is asleep, into the living room, to Rubén. And Sean, I continue, wanting to give the whole story a more extreme edge, Sean is probably not even really asleep. He lies there awake, listening to Julia's moans and Rubén's groans, and can't help touching himself. And that's maybe the only times he even gets it up anyway. Just because they are my best friends, doesn't mean they aren't fucked up too.
And so I step out of Julia and Sean's house, into a warm summer's night or a cold winter's night, into a wet autumn or a stormy spring. My way home isn't far, just a few minutes to walk, and then up five flights of stairs, I like to stay high above everything, and five stories is about as high as houses get here, for anything higher up I would have to move closer to the centre of the city, and who wants to do that...
I walk through the dirty streets of my neighborhood that were once empty and quiet at night, but now bustle with people tumbling in and out of bars. When I am lying in bed, later on, I will still be able to hear them, shouting on the streets, like they are alone in the world. I glare at them angrily now, because they might keep me awake later. And even more so, because they think this is fun, this is the sense of life: Partying every weekend, running through the streets, happily arm in arm, having beer and wine in all those fashionable little bars.
'Drunkards, all of them!' I think, while I stagger towards my home, pushing plastic bags and empty bottles away from the pedestrian lane with my feet, or hearing the snow creak under my shoes in winter.
The pub inside my house had been the first one. It had existed already whenever I moved in, when this neighborhood was poor and dangerous and my family asked me whether I wouldn't want to live somewhere else, somewhere that isn't in the news every week. When I moved in, the pub had been one of the reasons I chose to live in this house. I had seen myself hanging out there, getting to know the neighbors, making friends. I snigger at my own naiveté each time I pass it now.
I went there only once, on a cool Friday evening in March, a few weeks after I had brought my belongings into my new apartment. That day I did indeed make new friends: Julia and Sean, who themselves had just moved into an apartment nearby, and were having a look at what was then the only pub in the area, too. I don't remember why or how I entered a conversation with them, but their cynical tone, in which they dared to bad mouth anyone within sight, not caring whether they could be heard or not, impressed me. Being part of the conversation ensured not being its topic, and made me feel superior to anyone around.
As the evening turned into night, and the night into the early morning hours, we found ourselves alone in the pub with a moody bartender, who seemed to wish for nothing more than that we would finally go home -- we didn't drink enough for his staying there to be worthwhile, and back in those days the Friday night crowds still gathered in a different part of town. As we weren't done talking yet, I suggested going up to my place, on the fifth floor, in the same house as the pub, but Julia disagreed and said here and Sean's place was more convenient. You can't disagree with Julia on this issue. She doesn't visit other people, she has people visit her. So we went to their place, and from then on, we met there every Friday.
Rubén only joined our group about a year later. Julia brought him along one day, it turned out with the time that she knew him from work, but she didn't do any formal introductions, nor did she explain why she thought him a good addition to our Friday nights; but from then on he was there every Friday.
Julia and Sean and Rubén and me. I only see them on Fridays, but I know everything about them, because I know everything about their friends and families and work colleagues, without ever having met them.
Every Friday night, on my way home, I pass the pub, remember how I met Julia and Sean there, and wonder if maybe one day I should go back inside. And every Friday night I decide that I am too tired and that I don't like pubs anyway. Especially if they are as crowded as they are in my area, lately.
And every Friday night, I see the tall, blond guy from the third floor sitting somewhere near the window, by himself, looking into his glass of beer or watching other people play pool.
He is weird, that guy. He always smiles at me when we meet in the hallway, and sometimes he tries to strike up a conversation. I don't like him, though, and always pretend to be in a hurry. He does look nice, there is no arguing there, but maybe that is exactly the problem. He just looks too nice. Always eager to talk, to be helpful when I am carrying bags up the stairs after coming home from the supermarket. One of those people who want to be friends with everyone. And yet he sits alone in that pub, every Friday night.
In fact he has no friends, I bet. That's why he is so eager to talk to everyone.
And then there was that year in which Valentine's Day fell on a Friday. I didn't even realize it at first. I don't think much about Valentine's Day. After all, it is just another one of those imported holidays that no one in their right mind would give any attention to. Another one of those events that dominate billboards and TV commercials, with their tacky hearts indicating what chocolate or diamonds you should buy if you truly love someone. I didn't care, and I had learned to ignore the signs.
On Thursday evening, however, my phone rang. On the other end: Julia. It felt strange talking to her, hearing her voice through my old phone. She sounded so far away, as if she was calling from another country. I suddenly realized that we had never spoken on the phone before.
"We have to skip meeting up this Friday," she said.
I was still too preoccupied with the sound of her voice and the fact that she had called me, to realize what she was saying.
"You know, it's Valentine's Day, so Sean and I decided to have a romantic dinner somewhere... Should be good for our relationship too... I am sure you understand..."
Who are you and what have you done to Julia? I didn't say that, when what she was saying finally sank through to me, but I was close. This didn't sound like her. Since when did Julia worry about her relationship? Since when did she need to worry? Weren't we the ones that were above it all?
What else was I supposed to say?
Only after she had hung up, I started getting angry. Why did they have to do their romantic dinner on a Friday? Doesn't the week have six other days that work just as well?
I hadn't asked Julia what Rubén was going to do that day, and I didn't want to know. Rubén, to me, only existed in the context of our Friday meetings; he was like a talking addition to Julia's and Sean's apartment. In fact, even though I had heard all about him and his mother and his friend Robert and his crazy boss and many other people from his surroundings, I didn't even realize that he might have a life of his own.
I could have called other friends, too, to fill that gap that presented itself for the following night. But I didn't want to, out of protest. If they were going to go do something else on a Friday night, I was going to sulk. Quite apart, I couldn't think of anyone to call -- of course I knew more people than Julia and Sean and Rubén -- but none of them were people I actually hung out with. I knew them from work, I knew them from choir, and I knew them from way back when... But no one I wouldn't feel weird to call and ask to meet up on a Friday night.
When Friday night arrived, however, and I could hear the sounds of people from the street despite the closed windows, I grew nervous. I spend the whole week at home, every evening after work. I read books; I read internet forums, though I never dare to participate in them. The only exceptions are Mondays and Thursdays, that's choir practice, so those days I get home very late, and do less reading before going to bed. Oh, and on Tuesdays I usually go shopping after work. Saturdays are spent in bed, because our Friday nights get later and later, and on Sundays I visit my mother, I have to do that once per week, else she would start complaining. Generally I work a lot, time passes quickly.
But not going out on a Friday night, not seeing people with whom to talk about whatever I want to talk about, not drinking beer and eating unhealthy snacks -- after a whole week of reading and shopping and choir and work -- that just doesn't work. I couldn't stay at home, it just didn't feel right.
Outside, it was cold. I hid my hands inside the sleeves of my coat -- I had forgotten to take gloves along. The snow on the ground was covered with a fine layer of dirt, yet the streets still looked cleaner as they were covered with brownish-white snow rather than the usual mixture of plastic bags and torn magazines. The thin layer of snow and ice on the pedestrian lane creaked under my footsteps, while more tiny flakes were falling from the sky.
As I was about to close the door of the house I live in, someone was approaching with quick steps, his face covered almost completely with a thick scarf, a hat pulled down deep over his face. He hurried to reach the door before it closed completely, to safe himself the effort of unlocking it again. I caught it and held it open long enough for him to be able to slip in, even though my fingers were freezing,-- no one can say I am not nice.
Only when he passed me, I recognized him by the silly grin with which he greeted me. My neighbor. The guy from the pub. I realized that I didn't even know his name. Nor did I care to know it, though. We had talked a few times when he was still new in the house and I had not yet learned to avoid him, and he had probably introduced himself back then, but I don't spend attention to names I don't see as worthwhile remembering.
He looked different today. Usually he was always pushing his bike, carried it up the stairs to his apartment, a bright red helmet on his head. I have a bike too, but it had been standing in the courtyard for at least two years by then, without me ever touching it. It wasn't even locked -- not worth stealing. And I was pretty sure it would fall apart by now if I tried to ride it.
"Hello," he said, and stopped in the door, forcing me to keep standing there, too.
I rubbed my hands against each other, wanting to show him how cold I was, and how much I wanted to get going, rather than have to stand here in the door and return his smile.
"Cold, isn't it?"
You don't say.
"Sure is... Listen, I am in a hurry..."
"Yes," he smiles. "You are the lady that is always in a hurry."
He looked like he was about to say something else, but I slipped by him, and quickly walked off. I almost felt a bit sorry for him. Idiot.
I must admit, I spent at least fifteen minutes in front of Julia and Sean's house, spying on them. That is, spying on their dark window, in the hope of seeing some shimmer of light, in one of the back rooms, glimmering through when they open a door inside their place carelessly -- any sign that they are there, maybe with Rubén, hiding from me, excluding me.
Only when the cold crept through my coat, through my jeans, making me shiver, I realized how stupid I was behaving. What was I going to say if they were to come home just now, and see me standing there, across the street of their building, snowflakes on my bare hat, my hands hidden deep in the pockets of my coat, staring up at their empty windows?
I had to go inside somewhere, I realized. Somewhere warm. One of those many new bars maybe. Drink something. Going home would just have made me feel more pathetic. And there were enough places around that might be worth checking out. All I had to do was pick and chose. I could get reasonably drunk, pretend to have fun, and prove that I didn't need my friends, nor anyone, for that matter.
*** When I entered the pub downstairs from my apartment, I felt frustrated and exhausted: All the new pubs and fashionable bars seemed to have decided that Valentine's Day was their favorite event this year, and a worthy reason to throw single's parties, couple's parties, or just decorate everything with pink hearts. None of these places seemed to fit my mood, none of these places looked like somewhere I would want to be seen in. In the end, only this one pub remained, and it was the only one that looked like every normal Friday.
Stepping into the pub from the cold winter's night, I was greeted by too warm, too dry air, the smell of beer and cigarette smoke, and a mixture of some indefinable music and conversation shouted loudly enough to be heard over the music and the other people's voices. The pub was very full indeed, I could barely see any free seats, and people were standing in a thick crowd around the bar too.
Only in one corner of the room, next to a window, there still seemed to be a free chair at a small table. On the other chair that stood by that table, a male figure was staring into his beer. Too late I recognized him: Just when I realized I saw my neighbor sitting there and was about to turn away and join the crowds at the bar, he looked up and discovered me. With an inviting smile, he pointed at the empty chair opposite him, and as there really was no other free spot, I sighed and made my way through the crowds towards him.
"So the lady who is always in a hurry for once has time to go to the pub?" he said, smiling, as soon as I had sat down.
I turned around to look if anyone was coming around to take orders, or if I had to fight the crowds at the bar after all.
"He will be here eventually, don't worry," my neighbor said.
I nodded, and started taking off my coat to place it over the chair. Then I took my hat off, but instead of placing it in the sleeve of my coat, as I normally do, I fiddled with it in my hands, just to have something to do, just to appear busy.
"By the way, I am Alex", he said suddenly, reaching his hand toward me over the table. "In case you didn't know yet."
"Maria," I mumbled, and after hesitating a moment, I took his hand. It felt nice, somehow. For some reason I had expected him to have sweaty, cold hands, I had thought he was one of those people that never put anything into a handshake, so you feel like holding a rubber glove that someone has filled with water. Instead, his hand was warm and dry and strong.
It was my surprise about this, of course, nothing else, that made let go of his hand a fraction of a second later than was necessary, than was normal, and when I realized it, I felt my cheeks grow hot. Fortunately pubs are dark places around here, so I had hope he didn't see me blush. Instead, just to distract him, or to distract me, or maybe just to have something to do, I started talking.