Isabella

Retrieved from https://www.pexels.com/photo/black-and-white-man-model-portrait-25759/

He sighed as he set the empty bottle on the table. Beer usually brought him joy, but not this time. The cold, liquid gold did nothing to cool the burning anger and sorrow inside him.

And what was there to stress about? Nothing. But here he was. Because of a girl. A woman. Even worse, one could say. Girls are innocent. Women, however, are a different ball game. He stood up from his chair, his steps echoing in his dark apartment. He opened the door to his fridge, feeling the rush of cold air wash across his face, and relieved a beer from the cold prison. Deliberately twisting the cap off as he sat down, he felt as though he was in an interrogation room with the way the lamp shone down on him. He had never been in one. Maybe they were different.

He stared at the bottle of beer he had just brought, then at the other three bottles he had emptied. They hadn’t been emptied with any haste, so he wasn’t drunk by any means. He was… in a good state of mind. A perfect state of mind to over-analyse his relationship with her, solve the problems of the world, devise a way to win her back, think of a way to enact his revenge. He grabbed the beer and took a long swig. Not like he had anything important to do tonight. Or tomorrow.

Why?

Why did she leave him?

That was the million-dollar question. If he had a million dollars, and if someone could give him a legitimate answer, he may very well give that someone one million dollars. And he imagined the answer would be similar to the one she gave him. They just… fell apart. No, not fell apart. She fell out of her feelings for him. It happens. These things happen. Nothing wrong with him, just not for her. Easy. Clean. No need for drama or broken hearts. Because, if she thinks he isn’t for her, then he isn’t. And she isn’t the one for him.

Then why does it hurt?

Why did it hurt when he heard her name? Why did it hurt when he saw her face? Why did it hurt when anything came even remotely close to reminding him of her? Why was she still… there? She had left months ago. He wasn’t even sure what she was doing. Sure, they talked occasionally, promised to have coffee, said “let’s be friends” and promised it wouldn’t be awkward. He had felt good. He felt like he was over her. Things were going good… and then she messaged him. Asking him how he was doing. He remembered how his heart stopped and ached as he saw her name on his phone, her photo. Smiling, beautiful, taunting him.

Why weren’t you good enough for me? The photo said to him, even though it had no reason to say that. He hadn’t done anything wrong, according to her. He had no reason to be so bitter. He just needed to get over her. Easy.

The same way they just needed to solve climate change, or needed to create a cure for cancer, or needed to do whatever monumental task lay before them.

Easy.

He felt his heart begin to burn with longing and stifled it with some beer. How did one get over someone like her? His dad always said that the best you know is the best you’ve had, but he’d had others since her. It was… hollow. Forced, one might say. He had tried not to compare her to them, but everyone always compares. There’s always the best, the second best, the worst… And it wasn’t just even the bedroom antics. It was the conversations, the feeling in the air. The little things.

Maybe you can’t enjoy time with others because you’re not over her.

But how was he supposed to get over her if he couldn’t enjoy being with others? He snorted in frustration and had another drink. Was she the best? Had she been the one for him, and he let her just… slip away like that?

You didn’t do anything… well, you didn’t do anything wrong.

Her words echoed in his head, clear as the day he first heard them. She had meant no malice with those words. He had asked if it was something he had done. He knew she meant no harm with her words, but the phrasing tormented him now.

You didn’t do anything.

He couldn’t have done anything.

He could have done something.

He could have stayed. But that would have required some weird psychic future sight, for he had already received his job offer before they met. Also, if he was completely honest, he never pictured getting too attached to her in the couple of months they were together before he left for work.

But he could have done something.

He took another long drink of his beer and examined the bottle. A few swigs were left. Then, would come an important question: another one? He wasn’t sure. He knew that getting drunk didn’t quench the burning sensation inside him, the pain that flared up. He had found that the hard way when he allowed his emotions get the better of him. He had always wondered what it would have been like to get drunk to try to forget. It didn’t work.

Maybe he just didn’t drink enough. He snorted. If he had to drink more, then there was no point. He wasn’t that stupid. He held the beer bottle up to the light, to try to find some sort of answer to his problem, or at least a hint. Nothing. Just beer, a brown bottle and some label from some cheap beer company. He finished the remainder. Beer is beer.

He pushed his chair back and stood up, taking a little stretch. It was time for a cigarette. He wasn’t a habitual smoker, but he figured this was as good a time as any for one. He walked through his kitchen into the living room and towards the balcony of his apartment. He kept his eyes on the door, as he didn’t want to remember the times they spent laying on his couch watching terrible movies, touching, kissing… he didn’t want to remember that. He didn’t want to remember the bedroom antics, the laughter, the joy these apartment walls once saw. He didn’t want to remember that.

The air outside was cool. It was getting to be his favourite time of the year. Autumn wasn’t too hot, but not too cold. The leaves were becoming a fantastic array of different colours: red, yellow, orange, like a sunset on every tree. The air was brisk, the days were still bright, and there was no snow. He closed the door to his apartment and reached for the cigarette pack and lighter that was on the table outside. He opened it up and saw that there was one left. Checking his watch, he sighed. It was too late to go get more. He pulled out the cigarette and tossed the empty package on the table. The lights of the city and buildings around him allowed him to examine the perfect, round cylinder, white and orange, something that meant different things to different people. Something so innocuous, something so innocent, something so… bad.

Live fast, die young.

He lit up the cigarette and inhaled. The smoke cut at his throat for a moment, but then there was relief. Relaxation began to wash over him. Another puff. The first one was always the best. He leaned on the railings as he looked at the city. Traffic still flowed on the streets below. Most of the lights in the apartments near him were doused, but there were a few night owls still about. He wondered what they were doing or thinking about. Did they wrestle with their own thoughts the same way he wrestled with his? Another long drag was exhaled with care as he watched the cigarette burn. It was beautiful, in a way. Fire was a fascinating thing.

He stared up at the sky. It was dark. Just dark. It was hard to see even outlines of clouds, and no stars were visible. No moon, either. He wondered if she was looking at the same sky he was, maybe smoking a cigarette of her own. No, she wouldn’t be. She didn’t like cigarettes. Well, she did, but she was just worried about getting cancer. But, when she had a cigarette, she enjoyed it, that was for certain.

“Smoking’s bad for you,” she said sagely, lighting her own cigarette.

He laughed. “Everything is bad for you.” He took a deep inhale on his own and let the smoke out, blowing away from her face.

“Mm, that’s true,” she admitted, staring out at the city. The city was alive as it always was on Sunday mornings. “But you can limit the number of bad things you take.”

“You’re right,” he told her as he admired her. She was wearing his sweater that was a little big for him, so she was swimming in it. He didn’t know what it was about women wearing baggy sweaters, but… damn.

She scoffed and glanced sideways at him. “Of course I’m right.” She took a long drag and let it out as she turned her nose up indignantly. “I’m always right.”

“Of course, love.” He brushed her fingers with his. She moved her fingers with his, the lightest of touches, but he could feel his body burn with adoration. She turned to face him and smiled. Her eyes seemed to be looking at something more than just him. Maybe the real him. He couldn’t explain it. He just loved the way she looked at him.

She got up from her chair and came to sit in his lap. He wrapped his arm around her as she snuggled up close to him, taking another puff of her cigarette. “What shall we do today?” she asked him.

He exhaled the smoke from his own cigarette. “Anything and everything. The day is ours for the taking.”

“Mm.” She took another long drag and let it out deliberately. “I’m pretty comfortable right here.”

“Good.”

They sat in silence, each enjoying both each other’s presence and the cigarettes.

“Another one bites the dust,” she said as her cigarette reached the end of its life.

He chuckled as he finished his own cigarette. “Rest in peace, little guy.” He took her slain cigarette and put hers and his in the ashtray on the table. He held her as she nuzzled against him. They didn’t speak, but listened to the sounds of the city.

She began to cough. “Cigarettes are bad for you,” she mumbled.

He laughed. “So you’ve mentioned.”

Her hand reached up to touch his cheek. “You’re bad for me.”

He grasped her hand and kissed her palm. “I know.”

He looked at his cigarette. Most of it had burned away, unused. He sighed. At least there was some left. The cigarette filled him with feeling. Calm. What a way to waste a cigarette. They hadn’t smoked together often. Hell, he didn’t smoke often. Just every once in a while. That pack had lasted him quite some time. He had smoked more since they split up, but he was also under a bit more stress. His own making, no doubt.

Another hit. Almost done. Maybe he wouldn’t buy any more cigarettes for a while. If he didn’t have any, he couldn’t smoke any. Besides, they were bad for him.

One last hit, and the cigarette had burned to the filter. He felt the heat on his fingers as they threatened to burn. He plunged it into the ashtray and left it there. He stared out at the city again, watching the lights, listening to the vehicles pass underneath. He wondered what she was doing. Sleeping, maybe. Maybe with someone else.

Isn’t she seeing someone else?

Those words rang like a church bell in his head. A friend of his let loose that salvo after he mentioned her text. Maybe she was. Who cares. Not him.

But he did care. He didn’t want to think about her with someone else. He certainly didn’t want to see her with someone else. Before that, he had felt fine enough about the situation. She messaged him, said she would be around some time, we should get coffee, blah blah blah. He had felt strong enough to see her, to not be awkward, strong enough to carry on a conversation as friends and not feel weird about it.

Then that barrage had brought everything crashing down around him.

Now what? He was dying to know if she was seeing someone else. The question burned inside. When did they meet? How? Why? Was it serious? What did he look like? Where was he from? Was he nice? He couldn’t just very well ask her, at least not right now. Maybe when they met, but he couldn’t just ask her. It had to be natural. The conversation had to naturally progress to a point where it would be normal and acceptable as a friend to ask if she was seeing anyone. But, maybe he shouldn’t. Don’t ask questions you don’t want to know the answer to after all.

But he had to know. He just had to.

Just one more thing to worry about. His heart ached.

He remembered after they parted ways. He was going to work in another city over the summer. They needed him there. She was staying over the summer and then moving somewhere else to continue her studies. Not far, but not close enough to visit every day. He was going across the country, though, which made it hard to keep in contact. They talked, they skyped, they tried, but… it wasn’t the same. He wasn’t a talker, not a conversational artist. He didn’t mind silence. Silence is golden. They could lay together, not saying a word, but still communicating. Touches, looks, kisses… you can say a lot without saying a thing at all. But when you took that away, it was noticeable. Soon, all they had were words, which became more and more empty. And not even words, just… messages on a phone or computer screen.

After they broke up, he saw other girls. But they weren’t her. There were nice ones, of course, but… they weren’t her. They were always missing something. She wasn’t perfect, of course, but neither was he.

But she had been the best woman he had met.

She still was the best woman he had ever met.

Well, except for his mother of course.

He sighed. Time to go inside. He inhaled a deep breath of the cool air and exhaled. Maybe one more beer.

He kept his eyes forward as he walked past his living room again, thankful for the darkness. He relieved one more beer from the fridge and returned to his seat at the table. The bottle made a satisfying sound as he opened it. This would be his last one. Maybe.

“Okay, read it,” he said as he put his beer on the table.

“Okay, okay.” She grabbed a truth card, read it, and giggled. “Have you ever done anything illegal?”

He scoffed. “Hardly. I don’t even think I’ve shoplifted before.”

“And here I thought you were a badass.” She smiled as she took a drink.

He held up a finger to counter her point. “False, I’m a straight-edge badass.” They both laughed.

She reached for the board on the table and flicked the little black spinner. It spun, round and round and round, before coming to rest on TRUTH. “Ugh, so boring.”

“You never know, it might be interesting,” he said as he picked up a truth card. He read it and grinned. “Damn, this should be good.”

“What is it?” she demanded. “I wanna know!”

“Easy there,” he said, laughing. “Is there a person in this room that you would sleep with right now?”

She looked at him, deadpan. “No.” His face also went deadpan, and they stared at each other for a few moments, until she snorted. Then he laughed, and then they laughed together. “Of course, you,” she crooned, leaning close.

“Mm, I think I’d be up for that,” he replied, touching her hand as they kissed.

She broke away. “But first, we play the game.” She smiled and took a long drink. He rolled his eyes and had some of his own. Almost empty. He glanced at the empty cans on the table. There were a few. He flicked the spinner, and it went round and round and round until it came to rest on SHOT. He cursed as she cheered.

“Fuck!”

“Yes! Shot, shot, shot! Take it!” She snatched the vodka bottle and shot glass from the table. There had been a few shots of those tonight.

He sighed as she poured it like a fine wine, savouring the moment. “This game is bullshit,” he muttered.

“I love this game,” she sang, pushing the full shot glass over to him.

He took it and stared at it. So unassuming. So bad.

He brought it to his lips and drained it all back. The vodka burned, but it hadn’t been any worse than the other shots. He coughed once and winced as she giggled. “Tasty,” he managed to say.

“I could tell. Alright, my turn!” She spun the spinner, and again it did its merry dance around the different possible choices for the game. It went around, thought, and came to rest on DARE. “Yes!” She rubbed her hands together in excitement.

He rolled his eyes as he drew a dare card. “This is a good dare,” he stated, grinning.

“Well? I’m waiting,” she said, tilting her head and raising her eyebrows.

“Show the group an intimate part of your body.” He had tried to say the card without smiling, but he couldn’t help himself.

There was a pause, and then she smirked. She got up from her chair and he moved his to accommodate her as she came to straddle him on his lap. She lifted up her shirt and tossed it aside in one smooth motion.

Red was a nice colour on her.

Her hands went to her back, and she removed her bra with a flourish.

Then again, she looked great in nude.

Their lips met, and just like that, the game was over.

He groaned. That had been their second date, getting drunk and playing Never Had I Ever and Truth or Dare. It may have been his greatest date ever. It made for a good memory. So many memories of other nights, days, afternoons, dinners in and out.

They all hurt.

He took a swig of beer. They didn’t all hurt. Sometimes, there was a good sensation, like when you have a dislocated shoulder, and someone pops it back in, and it hurts like you can’t believe, but then there is relief. Sometimes, the memories brought him solace. Sometimes, they made him feel warm inside. Mostly though, they made him feel like he had just been punched.

Was this his life? Was he doomed to continue on, going from woman to woman, looking for something that he would never find in each one? Would he cross paths with her again, some day?

Distance makes the heart grow fonder, they say.

He shook his head as he had another drink. Bullshit.

He glanced at his watch. It was late. Normal people were sleeping. Maybe she was sleeping. Maybe she was awake. Maybe her man was sitting in a chair in his own kitchen. Maybe he was there, having a beer, considering the problems of the world, wrestling with his inner demons. Maybe she would come there, slide her arms down his shoulders, down his chest. Maybe she would kiss him on the side of the head and ask him what he was thinking about. Maybe he would tell her. Maybe she wouldn’t even ask. Maybe they would just be there, together. Maybe that was all that mattered to them.

Maybe.

He wondered what this new challenger was like, if he was even real. Did he have his act together? Maybe he was rich. Successful. Maybe he was tall, taller even. Buff, fit, athletic, intelligent. A genius. A god in the bedroom. A master chef. A god damned astronaut.

He wanted to spit in disgust.

He hoped that this new fellow was perfect. It would be so easy to hate him. So very, very easy. He didn’t want to find out that this man was some flawed being, much like himself. It’s easier to accept defeat when the victor is clearly better than you. He didn’t want to come in second by a hair.

Maybe they were just better for each other. Maybe there was just something about him that just clicked.

He had clicked with her, that was for certain. They had great conversations, great times, he had no complaints. But maybe she found her soulmate.

But maybe… what if, she was scared of feeling? What if she had liked — dare he even say loved? — him too much, and that was why she left. She did say she needed to find herself, love herself, take some time for herself.

That burned. To hear her say that, and then to hear that a mere three months later, she had found someone else… That was perhaps the greatest injustice of this whole farce.

Maybe three months was a long time. Besides, he shouldn’t get his hopes up like that.

He finished his beer with a few chugs. Whatever the case was, she was not with him. He didn’t even know if she was with someone else. The ignorance tormented him. He wanted to ask her, almost interrogate her, but he didn’t want to be that ex, the one who could never accept the fact that the relationship ended, had to cling on to something that wasn’t there… He had too much pride for that.

Maybe it was time for bed. He would put on some mindless show and let the TV rock him to sleep. He stood up and put the beer bottles together. He’d clean up tomorrow. He walked over to his calendar on the fridge and examined it. He should go buy food tomorrow. And more beer. And maybe some cigarettes.

He reached for a pen in the little basket on the counter. There was all sorts of stuff in there, keys, pens, papers… who knew even. He felt a pen and pulled it out, but it wasn’t a pen. It was a cigarette.

Her cigarette.

I’ll leave this here for when I come back.

She had left it here on his last day in the city before he left for his job. One cigarette to be smoked when they both returned to the apartment that was the setting for so many memories.

His heart pounded as he stared at it. It looked like a cigarette, just a different brand than his usual choice. He spun it in and out of his fingers. He had forgotten about it. Maybe cigarettes aged like wine and cheese did.

Only one way to find out.

He found a pen, scribbled a note on tomorrow to buy things, and then went back out to the balcony. The city hadn’t changed too much since he had been out last. The tobacco didn’t bite like the other, but there was a pleasant feeling that was left behind. Mint.

He rested his arms on the railing of his balcony and looked down at the street below. A few cars drove back and forth. There were even some people walking. To where, he had no idea. There was a satisfying sizzle as he took another drag. Maybe he should get some of these cigarettes, but that notion fled with a shake of his head. He didn’t need any more triggers.

He wondered how she was doing, what she was thinking. Was she happy? He knew that he was happy… in general. When he wasn’t thinking of her. When was at work, or with his friends, at the gym, reading, doing something, he was happy. She wasn’t on his mind. But sometimes it felt like he couldn’t stop. He had to keep doing something, he had to keep something there to keep his mind occupied. Because if he didn’t, she would catch up to his mind, take over his thoughts.

He used to enjoy the night. But now, the night was too quiet. Too peaceful. There was nothing to distract him from his thoughts, his own demons. The menthol cooled his throat as he drew from the cigarette.

But maybe… He took another quick puff. Maybe that was the key for him. Maybe he had to face his demons, wrestle with them. Sometimes your demons are not ones you can kill, but they are ones you can subdue. Keep in their place. Maybe he had to face his fears. Maybe he had to feel, maybe he had to hurt for her. Address it, come to terms with it…

And then he could be free.

He stared at the cigarette as he took another hit. It flared before dying down. Maybe he should take a page from her book. Find himself, love himself. It sounded like a load of bleeding-heart, hippie bullshit.

Maybe she couldn’t love him before he loved himself.

How did that phrase go? If you love something, set it free. If it comes back to you, great, whatever, if it doesn’t, it was never meant to be. Something like that.

The fire was reaching the end of its journey. One more hit. His head felt light again. Maybe he had to try to forget about her. Try to not pin even an iota of hope on the idea that they would get back together. They were scheduled to meet for coffee some time next week. She was in town, visiting family and friends, and suggested the idea. She had texted first, which meant she had thought about him. A thought has to be worth something, right?

But it would be just as friends, nothing more.

Nothing more?

Nothing more. Friends. Platonic. He needed to rebuild himself first. Let her wait. Let her suffer if she wanted to be with him again. She could wait. He waited; it was her turn.

Another hit. It wouldn’t be easy, but good things never are. He wondered how he would go about doing it. He just had to be strong. Easy.

Like sending a man to the moon easy.

But they sent a man to the moon. Multiple men, multiple times.

So he could do this.

The final hit. He stared at the cigarette, now burned down to the filter, warming his fingers. Her cigarette.

Isabella’s cigarette.

He had a wry smile as he eked one more drag out of the protesting cigarette and then flicked the butt out towards the street. He turned his back on it as it fell.

Ciao, Bella.

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