“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, / there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks

Stages

This collection of interwoven stories is loosely based on stages of grief, pain, and emotional fallout from the chaos and instability of others. This is a work of fiction. A new stage/chapter will be published monthly.

Inspirations

I am not a creative writer. I am someone who is grieving a loss — layers of loss. I draw inspiration from the works of Albert Camus and Milan Kundera. The uncanny poetry of Pablo Neruda. The dysfunctional and powerful drama written by Edward Albee and John Patrick Shanley.

Inland: A Grief Story needs telling, and although my words can never scale the heights of Camus, Kundera, Neruda, Albee, or Shanley, I hope they help anyone reading. Anyone who has ever felt the life-altering experience of grief and loss.

Above all, I am inspired by Tony and Susan, a novel by Austin Wright, and Nocturnal Animals, directed by Tom Ford. This is for the nocturnal animal within her. Every detail should be a mirror reflecting back her innumerable deceptions, infidelities, and betrayals.

“When you love someone, you work it out. You don’t just throw it away. You have to be careful with it. You might not get it again.” Edward Sheffield, Nocturnal Animals

1. Loss

Limp. Cold. Weathered. Worn. Numb.

The waiting room has neutral-colored walls; at times it surrounds him. Today it embraces him from the cold within himself. His limp body sinks into the waiting room seat like damp clothes clumped in a pile on an empty bedroom chair. The kind of coldness that seeps into your skin and wears it down to the bone. The kind of dampness that saturates your skin to where it takes years to warm.

Each chair forms an army of soldered connections: a relentless chain of attachment except for his next to a stack of magazines on a short-footed table. The iron arms breaking for vibrant and silky magazines stacked and spilled in an organized mountain. Die-cut address labels with minimal white edges that persist in the empty space. His eyes drawing an imaginary outline along the die cuts as he thinks: This, too, is loss.

Refocusing his dark and deadened eyes on the opposite wall to where his imagination reunites with three framed pictures sagging hopelessly upon a nail gauged in their backs and the mental questioning resumes: What is their meaning? Each visit to the waiting room enables him to ponder a separate or thematic meaning: pastel rendered fruit, watercolor giraffes, and an illustrated town square blanketed by snow. It isn’t the pictures that hold his stare; it’s a lifeless gaze. His thoughts vacillate between a threaded meaning among the pictures and what the weight of the stacked fruit, the watery chaos of the giraffes, and the cold cobblestone masked by snow must feel like.

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Releasing his eyes from the framed images, they slowly shift like an aimless pendulum from the grey flooring to the near-dead potted plant. The leaves lifelessly tangled and spilled over each other. The wrought iron rack hosting the lifeless plant next to the framed newspaper comics, and the professional disclaimer about canceled appointment policy. Business cards tucked in organized rows.

He was often five or ten minutes early. This meant he got to awkwardly smile at those exiting the door to the waiting room. Shame is an unmistakable emotion; it reads easily as averted eyes or refusal to make eye contact. This, too, is loss.

An elderly woman supported by a walker exits the door to the waiting room. It precedes her every step; it’s her safety and support. He assists her in holding the door as she slowly ushers the walker forward, like a horseman holding the reins of a horse, eager to leave its gate. She thanks him with a self-deprecating nod and smile at the walker. He is not unkind. He is not devoid of empathy. He is, however, emotionally detached and disconnected. From the outside, others might perceive him as uncaring, but not to strangers with shame.

Loss distracts and consumes.

A few moments later, a woman in her early sixties — with flowing, drapey clothing and watery blue eyes, whose glasses frame her compassionate gaze — appears in the threshold of the waiting room. “Come on in,” she says with a kind smile.

She steps aside as he returns the smile and enters the hallway to her office. He assumes his usual place: sitting in the center of her crimson sofa, between two textured throw pillows; one he hooks between his inner arm and upper body.

The space is comforting: a muted and patterned area rug, extensive bookshelves on the wall facing him, along with her reclining chair a mere six feet from his position on the sofa. Next to her is another short-footed end table with a lamp, alarm clock, and royal blue coffee mug with taupe-colored lipstick, dried and stamped from a long-day’s listening, soothing, and healing.

In some ways, their five-year partnership is professional yet personal; there is a near-inevitable bond when one shares their personal pain and anguish together. Beyond her outer door, he is a high-functioning depressed, professional man. His pain translates into productivity and perpetual exhaustion.

The gray walls in Vivian’s office stoically brave each patient’s personal disaster: the philandering ways of a selfish husband, the therapy-will-work-couple who refuse to love or divorce, the mother with postpartum depression, the arms-crossed dysfunctional family, the alcoholic with a cup of coffee, the cutter, and the lot of mental health sufferers seeking help.

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As part of his fidgeting routine — typically eyes shifting left and right in a beat per second — his hands roam over the textured pillow sitting upon the Chenille sofa.

Vivian crosses her legs upon taking her seat and enshrouding her slender shoulders with a shawl wrap. Settling in, her soft-spoken voice asks, “So. How are you?” This familiar opener confounds him: he’s at once distraught but compartmentalizes his emotions enough for politeness and niceties. “I’m good. How are you?” He responds in a low, emotionless voice.

“I’m good. It’s a bit cold out today.” Vivian observes.

He nods, awkwardly navigating therapy small talk. The liminal space between opening up versus guarding against hopeless (pathological?) (complicated?) grief.

Grief as researched and recorded in numerous books, talks, workshops, and other self-help portals is a cycle. A numbers game: five stages, seven stages, nine stages. Some project grief as an unending cycle; hopelessly circuitous. Most people think grief occurs in the aftermath of physical death: their body is gone, memories persist, and grief is a natural response to loss. While grieving the dead is one painful path, grieving the living also has its course, like consequential calendar dates.

Alex breaks from thought and looks up at Vivian. She clearly said something he missed. His murky mind and thoughts flow unevenly in currents of flashbacks, flashforwards, obsessions, and deep mental and emotional anguish.

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Vivian’s chin lowers to her chest: “Has she contacted you?”

It takes him a moment to brush away the haze of his ruminating mind — thoughts drifting from the present to the past. His head finally shakes no in response.

His eyes set upon her bookshelf — over her right shoulder — and in a stale voice says, “I hope she doesn’t. I hate her.”

This is the angry and bitter stage of grief. On a given day, his sadness and thoughts reflect the angry and bitter stage of grief. His thoughts — no matter how unrealistic — become his reality and project a reality that is hardly true. For all he feels is true, he imagines things in her life are so much better than his. A common trope for those who have been betrayed and discarded. He is hopelessly deadlocked in an imaginary battle and wants nothing but the pain he feels doubled for her.

Vivian closes her eyes for the moment as he speaks, empathetically feeling the depths of each word.

Silently with eyes sealed, she says, “Tell me about her again.”

He shakes his head, eyes narrowing, brows furrowing. He begins again: “I can’t figure out on a mental or emotional level, whether she’s the victim or the villain. This dramatic, erratic, push-pull script that she follows, only after she seduces and then abandons you.” His argument once again pleading in an empty “courtroom” of morality and fairness. No verdict can be rendered when the perpetrator is not standing trial for what she has done.

Shifting back in her seat, Vivan begins her confessional. “You know. The first time you told me about her, she made me think of disorganized attachment.”

He nods in agreement, continuing, “I remember referring to her…characterizing her public and private behavior as erratic.” He shakes his head, squinting harder, as the flashbacks play out in his mind like white and gray ghosts. “I just remember repeating that to myself” his voice trailing off.

The muscles of his face releasing in complete surrender — gravity sinking his expression to despair. “I would repeat that to myself…aloud and to her. When I wanted to talk things over, she emotionally avoided me; she said she didn’t want to relive what she did. Other times she physically avoided talking to me — almost running away. It was like this reflexive fear she had about seeing or talking to me.” His eyes shifting left and right, searching and tracing the visual ghost of the memory: those moments of her erratic avoidance and irrational, unwarranted fear.

He nods silently to himself and softly admits, “That’s how I would characterize her today: erratic, unstable, and reflexively fearful of the contact she initiates with others by idealizing, obsessing, flirting, and romantically or sexually enticing other men, only to devalue and avoid them.”

Vivian’s eyes study him, seeing the aftermath of someone devastated by the loss. Crippled by a woman with the emotional maturity of a toddler.

His head sinks down to his palms, elbows digging into the tops of his legs. His sadness masked by anger: “I wish I never met her. She continues to show up in places that I am; places that were once a shared memory, my work…and then acting — without any threat of harm or endangerment — completely fearful. And you know what the fucking sad part is?”

Vivian’s sorrowful expression mirroring his.

He heavily sighs, “…It occurs to me that by comparison, she and I are bound by a cycle: for her this strange and endless loop of nearness and avoidance. For me…this hopeless repeating cycle of painful history.” The look of deflation, exhaustion, and disgust on his face.

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Photo by Adrian Swancar on Unsplash

Following a two minute pause — stale emotions hanging weightfully in the air — Vivian softly asks, “So how do we get you unstuck from this loop? Frankly, I don’t care about her. I care about you and how this impacts the rest of your life and where you go from here.”

He silently shrugs, teeth sinking into his lower lip, head shaking. He quietly offers with hopeless defeat, “I don’t know.”

What became of that space of Rolodexing memories and fast-moving thoughts — caught up in the thick of history — was an hour concluded. Vivian’s head rolls from one side to the other, eyes on him: “Let’s stop. When’s a good time next week?”

2. Submersion

Deep. Dark. Watery. Biting. Disconnected.

Midnight casts its ominous blue light on the city and paints the bricks to nearby buildings. Sirens scream in high-pitched waves, at times blending together, in a cacophony of sound. Alex stands in his tenth-floor apartment surrounded by humming blue lights and shadows. His lips reluctantly part:

When I was seven years old, I nearly drowned in a neighbor’s above-ground swimming pool. One moment I was sitting on the top rung of the ladder, the next moment, I was hitting the cold water; it felt like getting slapped on the cheek by a torrent of icicles. It was seasonably warm in early autumn but I couldn’t escape the cold. It was raining and there were damp leaves all around — some of those leaves were at the very bottom of the pool, as I hopelessly sank into the dark wallows, watching my feet descend to the darker and darker octagonal shape of the pool floor. I remember pausing, mid-sink, to look upwards towards the surface to see just how far I’d fallen in. I saw a broad halo of white: a light source with rippling waves above my head as water sunk into my lungs. My ears stinging from the sound of cold bubbles — I was able to hear but unable to listen. This remains an imprint; it’s a strange memory that I don’t index as the past; rather, the sensations of drowning always stay with me in the present. It’s not like a post-trauma memory; it’s an ever-present and repetitious memory like meeting her. She was in the background, in the depths, in the darkness, until she wasn’t.

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Photo by Adrian Swancar on Unsplash

We met in a meditation group. She saw me first. She wasn’t direct in her approach; she was far more subtle. But before she formally introduced herself and began the pursuit, our paths nearly crossed. But when they did so in this beginner’s meditation series, it was the start of a beautifully fucking destructive tornado and I was the first house to fall. About two weeks prior to her formal introduction, we were briefly introduced by Melanie, a woman in her 30s who befriended me because it was, after all, a community. We were seated in the same row of mats organized for meditation. Melanie turned to me and introduced me to her. We learned that our paths might have crossed a year earlier. But the here and now is what matters. After friendly hellos, I thought nothing of it.

I showed up for meditation the next week and that’s when she intentionally took her place next to me — she would later admit this was intentional and part of her attraction towards me.

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A loud flick of the lights casting shine on the white tile of his bathroom. The room is sterile: tile, wall-mounted sink, sheer shower curtain peeled back with the empty porcelain tub on display. The sirens reverberating in the space with sterile white and one lone window serving as a translucent canvas for neon lights flickering in heated distress. He steps in front of the sink, looking at himself in the mirror and finding his face so foreign. He doesn’t recognize the dead look in his eyes or the anger settling into the lines on his face; the cast of darkness and sadness covering his bones like a fourth skin.

She said when she saw me for the first time that she knew. A line anyone can say. She showed up night after night to meditation with me in her everyday thoughts. It wasn’t long until I was in her erotic thoughts.

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The creaking knob to the sink turns; water plunging into the recesses of the wide-mouthed sink. His hands break the constant flow to splash that cold and familiar water upon his face. Eyes close.

Our hands brushed that night in meditation and for the first time, we touched, unofficially. Once I felt the accidental brush of knuckles, we simultaneously looked at each other, and I smiled silently mouthing: “I’m sorry.” She smiled, too. This wasn’t an accident — she chose to be that close. She wanted us to touch. This went on until August when she waited to walk out of meditation class with me and walked with me to my car. Her confessional moment was in this order: she was attracted to me and wanted to get to know me better; she was a mother, and she was getting divorced. I didn’t know at the time that she was a partial liar.

I had my reservations about her — never trusting or opening up to anyone in my life. Drowning teaches you to rescue yourself and that’s what I did that day in the swimming pool. I found a way to rescue myself and born of that experience was that some deaths don’t equal finality; they equal re-emergence. She, however, was my death of the soul and as I speak these words, I attend the ongoing funeral of my own life and dreams.

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His palms firmly holding the sides of the wall-mounted sink. Beads of water dripping down his face and into the spatter of water collecting near the valley of the sink down into the drain. He feels the slow-form of a water droplet from his chin free-fall down into the white basin. Stillness and depthless stare.

By October she told me that he tried to killer her and her daughter. She never characterized her relationship and marriage to him as abusive, but her descriptions painted their unholy union as riddled with domestic violence. I will not use or reveal his name, but I will call him what I think he is: a cuckold. Or simply put: a pathetic cuck whose wife fucks other people and goes home to him. She preys on men outside his home — the home where he closely monitors her every move; call it jealousy, call it insecurity, call it a byproduct of his pathology.

He splashes more water on his face like the torrent of icicles he once felt sinking into the pool. Closing his eyes not to recapture the sensory memory but to hold in his tears.

For those of you who have been in an abusive or toxic relationship, patterns turn into hallmarks, and signals should not be denied or avoided. But it’s never that easy, is it? She told me about the time he was jealous of people she talked to, berated her, and made her agree that she was all of the negative names he called her. She said she cried all the way home looking out the passenger side window. Or the time he frantically paced a parking lot with her locked inside the car calling for help. Or the time he abandoned her on the side of the road. That is not love.

And I’m sad and sorry for all that she experienced but that does not ever create a scenario in which hurting other people frees her of her past or her pain. She is a perpetrator of other people’s pain. And has done nothing to help herself. Having affairs does not absolve the past or a broken relationship. Or a broken life. Or a broken woman. She’s the wrecking ball and the wall — she destroys herself over and over again. She doesn’t make mistakes; she repeats destructive patterns.

His hand turning the chrome nobs to draw a bath.

Over and over again. At least twice. She confessed that two years prior, she sought the attention and relationship of someone else. He crossed paths with her in an innocent place, same as me. A place that didn’t raise red flags when she left her front door. She worked with him, she mentored him, and she wanted to have an affair with Ben. That’s what she said. She claims she never had sex with him but thought about it. She went as far to the edge as she could, confessing her feelings for him one night, but he didn’t feel the same. She said it ended there but I doubt that.

Getting into the bathtub, he slicks his hair back and rests against the white porcelain that cradles his body. Vulnerable to the water once more.

In the middle of October, we had our first official dinner date. We agreed to meet at a corner vegan restaurant with sidewalks busy, cars passing but seeking the intimate refuge of a quiet table in the back of the restaurant. I waited for her on the corner near the intersection, looking up to watch her stand, pressing the traffic light button and drawing that moment like a still-picture in my mind: a keepsake because it would not last. We smiled at each other with just the white-painted lines of the cross-walk bridging our distance. I smiled and told her at least five times how beautiful she looked: she was radiant and shimmering in her grey top, skirt, and knee-high boots. Her joyous smile was even more radiant; she wore that the best.

Alex’s neck rolling to the left, cheek against the white porcelain curve of the tub. Eyes glazing as if projecting the memory to his mind.

We had an intimate dinner, though our table was square in the middle of a busy restaurant. We were similar: introverted, private, and loving the feeling of being lost in emotion, in the depths of things. She shared stories about her life, her past, her pain. She often seemed up-front and candid about these moments, but I also knew it was a way that someone could manipulate another. I saw her as a good person in a bad situation. I wanted to think the best of her but her life and decisions never made me feel safe enough to fully trust her. Now I know that anyone who has ever cared for or loved her probably felt the same way; the same sting from her betrayals.

A few weeks later, she invited me over for dinner at her home. With him out-of-town, she drew me in further, and though I once again had reservations, I accepted. Every day I regret the decisions I’ve made and how I ever gave her my trust when she asked for it. I regret being considered a mistake because two affairs do not equal a mistake; it’s intentional. It’s deliberate. It’s premeditated adultery but might as well be murder.

She introduced me to her daughter, and that would cement in me a pain that echoes every calendar date that passes. Every birthday gone by. Because this little girl was innocent, not complicit in her mother’s manipulative strings of attachment or erratic, unstable love affairs. Introducing someone to a child — someone you don’t intend to have in your life or that you make it nearly impossible for them to have contact with them is devastating. But to someone so impulsive and reckless with her life, with only the thought for herself, a woman seeking some sort of relationship to define and “save” her, fails to see that her child might be confused or hurt by the appearance and disappearance of a stranger that’s “Mommy’s friend” and then no one at all. And whether or not that child remembers any of her time with me, I certainly do. And it hurts. It fucking hurts.

Alex sinks down into the bathtub. His body submerged once more beneath the seethrough silk of the water, bubbles surfacing. No movement.

3. A Bar in Bolton

Alex’s driver’s side window is a canvas for the crystal branches of ice that spread across the glass in a tapestry of frozen blue stems and petals. Through this veil of winter into early spring is Bolton: a lakeside village that embodies the quaintness of an Upstate town, where roads are winding inlets along the mountainscapes leading to quiet cafes, shops, restaurants, and bars.

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Photo by Darius Cotoi on Unsplash

In late-March are the year-round faces — the fixtures of town — who remain long after the summer and fall travelers have left their memories at the water’s edge. Boats idle in the resounding current of a near-frozen lake — waters hushed by thin layers of mist, shielding their whispers of peace — and retreating to another year’s dormant life beneath a layer of solid ice. Dome islands — anchored in the center of the lake’s graceful body — reveal homes with shuttered windows through the naked trees decorated only with icicles that signal winter’s journey through somber blue days and isolated nights. Cradling all of these moveable parts are the resolute mountains peering down from their tallest peaks; they are idle but give the illusion that they move with every mile of Alex’s tires in the seven-minute drive between Queen Lake and Bolton.

Diamond Spring is a two-lane, winding road lined by tall trees whose branches give way to the lake’s calming and enduring presence. Like a nurturing mother’s watchful eye, the Queen is a constant and beautiful sight, even in the darkest and most remote parts of the road where one’s headlights — and that of fellow travelers — illuminate the way. There is a kind of hush to the space of recessed homes tucked above these roads signaling their presence with porch lights. It is along this winding pavement that Alex reflects the most; each ride through these connecting villages stirs in him a feeling of longing and quiet reflection. It is almost an indescribable feeling but can be likened to taking a long drive alone on familiar streets but getting lost in your memories.

Alex’s thoughts steer his mind as his hands firmly guide the steering wheel with every curve. The cabin of his black Camaro warmed by the heat turned on and the sound of music filtering through the empty passenger seats. On this drive, like others before, he occupies his mind with lyrics by The Smiths whose song “How Soon is Now?” is the perfect near-instrumental alternative song for the road. The intense and reverberating echoes of the guitar riffs are the right chorus for the repetitive backdrop along the lake. Morrissey’s painful and vulnerable lament about needing love like everyone else can plunge anyone into a once “forgotten” or repressed memory. It was also on drives like this that he first discovered the ambient pop, slow rhythms, and whispery vocals of the band, Cigarettes After Sex, whose cinematic lyrics write an imagined screenplay of everyone’s dark and sensual relationships; the kind one finds nearly impossible to forget. The first song he ever heard — while traveling on Diamond Spring Road — spoke romantically of a tragic love amidst an apocalyptic terrain; all around these lovers were black and white images, destruction, and haunting seductiveness of two lips sealing together in an unspoken oath that guaranteed they would be locked in each others’ memories. As tragically romantic as this dark and debaucherous world is, it’s impossible to be in each others’ memories or locked together without emotional scar tissue. Without a doubt locked in Alex’s ribs were undressed wounds, open stitches, and yet scar tissue over what his grief could bear and what it could not.

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Entering Bolton, Alex pulls the car into the parking lot across the street from Lakeside: a rustic tavern that resembles a log and stone cabin, with red-barn paneling, and a wraparound porch and swing, overlooking Queen Lake. Bolton locals still believe in the intimacy of sitting face to face for a drink or dinner, unphased by the freezing temperatures — of the early nightfall of a wintry evening — unbothered by the loneliness that could come from unoccupied streets. Alex follows behind local patrons entering the bar, as others sit bundled on the top of the porch railing, cigarettes in hand. The glow of yellow and red neon beer brands frame the wooden doorway. On a Wednesday night, the bar is mildly busy; the locals share a drink together near the counter, while the booths that frame the perimeter of the bar remain empty. The interior walls are made of honey-colored knotty-pine with tacked-up nostalgic posters, canoe paddles, and a roaring stone fireplace.

Taking off his grey, wool gloves, Alex approaches the bar stools, with a hand patting the back of his best friend, Kristian, sitting farther down the bar from the locals. Kristian, feeling the friendly and affectionate pat on the back, turns around to greet Alex and shake hands.

“Happy birthday, old man”, says Kristian, with a low and husky voice, as the two embrace before sitting down at the bar. Alex brushes off some frost from his shoulders, pops the collar to warm his neck, then neatly matches his gloves together, before he tucks them in the left breast pocket of his black peacoat.

“Been waiting here long?” Alex’s brow raises, as he places a cigarette between his dry lips, raises a hand to signal the bartender, then looks back at Kristian.

“It wasn’t too bad of a wait”, Kristian shrugs, “Not many of us in here anyway.” He resumes looking over the dinner menu, as Alex nods in response. They have been friends for five years, and best friends for about half that time, always having each others’ backs and supporting each other through changing family ties, frustrating bosses, and lost love. More like brothers at times, with different lives and careers, their bond remains the same. Kristian, a 30-year-old classically-trained chef, looks over the menu’s fare several times with discriminating taste. A young-looking James Dean, with a bright-white collared shirt fitted beneath a burgundy argyle sweater and khakis, is hardly a rebel, but any cause he believes in is matched with a kind and loyal heart.

Kristian’s appearance contrasts Alex’s quiet, brooding countenance — a young 1960s Alain Delon with tousled dark hair and rugged swagger. His jeans fitted and folded up at the ankles. His dark eyes tired and lined with burden — the emotional and physical toll of carrying grief days on end.

The bartender places down a freshly polished lowball glass that is a Whiskey Manhattan Cocktail. Alex lifts it mid-air to meet Kristian’s Bombay Gin toast. “To many more…”, the two laugh. Alex takes a slow Whiskey sip, then sets the glass down, and turns to Kristian.

“Thanks for coming out here.” Alex exhales a long, tasty sigh, feeling the slow-burn of the Whiskey down his throat, warming his inner coldness.

Kristian shrugs, “Of course. Not going to miss it. How’ve you been?” Alex’s knowing smirk spreads the length of the crease on the left side of his lips. The brooding, drawn-out guitar of Two Feet’s “Love Is A Bitch” playing through the speakers of the bar. Alex lifts his lowball glass once again in a mock-toast to himself: “Same as fuckin’ usual.” He downs the remaining liquid in a futile attempt to numb his pain. His index finger taps the tip of the lowball signaling the bartender to pour another round.

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Photo by Andrea Mininni on Unsplash

Kristian shakes his head with an affirmative tone: “Not tonight. We are having a good dinner, drinks, and celebrate you for a change. Come on.” The men shuffle from the bar — drinks in hand — to one of the booths nearby. Alex flicks his lighter nub and watches more patrons enter the bar area from the front door. Nearly an hour later, the two finish dinner, and sip from the rising steam of two black coffees. Alex relaxes his back into the booth cushion, listening to Kristian discuss his business and financing plans for his first restaurant. Alex’s cigarette perched between his lips as smoke rises and billows. A momentary shift of his eyes, through shrouding haloes of smoke, from Kristian to the entryway, in-walks a 30-something, petite and curvy woman with shoulder-length brown hair, partially obscured by a baseball cap.

Like the familiar sound of cold bubbles — the ones raging at his eardrums — as he nearly drowned as a boy, Kristian’s voice grows muffled, and all Alex can focus on is this young woman. He sits frozen, eyes fixed with a sudden fear that grips his chest, as he watches her walk toward the bar. Some of her friends greet her, the bartender knowingly pouring her drink, as she must be from the Bolton area. But for the moment — in frozen isolation — pupils dilate, Alex is witness to the uncanny resemblance between this young woman, who he never met or seen in Lakeside until this evening, and her. His body response is a lockdown, though his eyelids attempt to rapidly clarify this woman in view. In moments like this, Alex cannot move; he is rooted in place, and while he observes this lookalike, his mind knows it’s not her, but cannot bring himself to be unstuck.

Kristian notices the marble-like state of Alex’s eyes, slows his sentences down to a fade in his words, then looks over his left shoulder. The two men observe this local woman dropping her head back to drink her cocktail. After a moment, she feels the weight of their stare, then looks over in the direction of the booth. Her eyes bounce from Kristian to Alex — a slow smile spreads across her lips with a flirtatious invite. Alex’s expression remains unchanged, yet his eyes turn from a darkened hollow to a place of warmth and longing like the weathered and worn streets just outside of the tavern, dissolving from ice to watery stillness. She turns back to her friends, as they set up a game of shuffleboard, in the corner side space between the bar and pine wall.

“Uh oh.” Kristian quietly laughs. “That’s an invitation.”

Alex’s eyes momentarily shift from Kristian’s lingering words, back to this local stranger, then down at the table, finishing his cigarette. Smoke filling the void between the two of them at the table. “Thanks for dinner.” Alex stands, as Kristian laughs and looks up at him. “Are you flirting or leaving?”

Alex’s head shakes. “I can’t stay.” Kristian’s curious expression says it all. “Because of her?”

Alex’s mind races, adrenaline, mixed with a nervous stir in the pit of his stomach. He stands and walks to the restroom. The porcelain sink becomes his refuge, quickly splashing cold water on his face; palms spreading droplets of water in an uneven pattern up and down his face with eyes closed. Hands part to reveal his glistening face as he stares at himself in the mirror, feeling the emotional damage of seeing her ghost.

The slow, somber strokes of the bass guitar fill the empty restroom, accompanied by the sound of a stray faucet drip. Alex smirks at the irony of “You’re the Only Good Thing in My Life” by Cigarettes After Sex beginning its familiar refrain. He stands back from the sink, then turns and exits the bathroom, returning to the bar area. He leans against the rail and orders a shot, as Kristian joins him. “You ok?” Alex nods and downs his shot. “I’ll be fine. It’s just…she’s…it’s too close.”

Kristian pats Alex’s shoulder. “Don’t let her win. She doesn’t deserve it.”

Alex pulls out his gloves from within the pocket of his pea coat, the nods. “Thanks again, brother. I’ll see you around.” The lazy, almost hypnotic bass of the song, acting as the narrator of the slow-motion moment in which Alex walks to the tavern door. All sounds blending and drowning out, with only his movements, feeling slow and mechanical, as the moment develops in near-increments of slow-motion to stillness. As he approaches the shuffleboard table, his eyes meet the familiar stranger — the same shade of brown hue but a kinder soul within them. His expression is one of surreal guardedness and dread. The awkward and painful glance toward someone who resembles the woman who delivered the cruelest and harshest pain of his life. The deep freight and shame coursing through his body, as his eyes avert from her unknowing gaze. It’s the moment of being caught up in time with someone who innocently resembles the worst of someone else.

Seemingly adrift with grief, Alex feels the cold rush of Bolton air biting at his warm skin. Stepping beyond that bubble of anguish, he secures his popped collar and crosses the street to the parking lot as a mixture of ice and snow descend upon his shoulders. As he withdraws his keys, his eyes attempt to discern the dark, feminine figure by his Camaro, but the peppering of white crystals obscure his clarity. He hears her familiar voice say his name. His heart freezes between beats as he pauses before the driver’s side door as he suspects it’s her. These strange encounters and her likeness emanating from the desolate darkness, with only the light of the parking lot to illuminate their distance.

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Photo by Riley Crawford on Unsplash

He stops as the glittering snow acts as a beaded curtain between them. A second voice, richly gruff and deep: “There he is. I told you it was Alex.” Jack closes his car door and walks alongside his girlfriend, Christine. Alex watches as they approach with coupled hands; the voice belonging to Christine dissipates the tension in his mind and body.

Reluctantly at first but with a partial smile, Alex moves in closer to them. “Hey. What are you guys doing here?” “

“We were hoping to catch you and Kristian at the bar — have a few drinks,” Jack explains. “Are you leaving?”

Alex nods, “Yeah. I have a full day tomorrow. But thank you guys. Good to see ya…and Kristian’s still inside. Go have another round for me.” The group of old friends embrace, then part ways with Jack and Christine walking towards the tavern, as Alex watches them before getting into his car and catching his breath. Layers of frost and snow accumulate on the hood of his car as he sits idly by the tavern, then finally turns the ignition. His eyes close momentarily, gathering himself, then pulling away from Lakeside; leaving the haunting memory of her in the rearview mirror.

4. Homelife & Hotel Keys [publishing: 11.16]

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Author | Inland: A Grief Story

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