The framed diplomas hung on the walls beneath several layers of dust. The old English font indicated that it had been quite some time since the doctor had graduated from medical school. Paul stared at them with mild interest before returning his focus to his feet as they dangled from the examination table. The sheet of tissue paper crinkled and rustled underneath him at the slightest hint of movement. The equally thin, threadbare examination gown wrapped Paul in an inadequate embrace, leaving him nearly naked and shivering. There was no doubt in his mind that the doctor would return any moment with news that his self-inflicted condition had worsened. It would come as no surprise to him as the deterioration of his body seemed to coincide with the deterioration of his life. The concept of time had all but eroded as the painful memories of his past seeped into his present and poisoned his future; leaving him in a perpetual state of hopelessness with no outlet for redemption.
Once again, he had found himself at the cross roads. Although, if he were to be completely honest with himself, he realized he had never truly left. He had made his home at life's intersection; a purgatory filled with women and booze to pass the time. There had been occasions where he had ventured down the seemingly bright avenues, only to discover they were cul-de-sacs of disappointment. The cross roads had rewarded him the comfort of potential, as it allowed him to be continuously poised to choose the proper path, while also absolving him of any failures he might endure as a result of such a decision.
A soft knock rapped somewhat hesitantly upon the door milliseconds before it was opened by the doctor. Instinctively, Paul sat up straight, correcting his poor posture, nearly exhausting the supply of what little confidence he had left. The doctor closed the door softly behind him and took a seat in the chair across from Paul and consulted his chart. He pulled out his reading glasses and hinged them upon the bridge of his nose, the black frames colliding with his bushy grayish eyebrows. After a few moments passed with neither man saying anything, the doctor peered above his glasses and fixed his eyes upon Paul who smiled uncomfortably.
"Lay it on me Doc." Paul said.
"Listen Paul, your liver is now only functioning at 30%. Of course I can't help but feel as if that comes as no surprise to you."
"Right." Paul said hoping it would be the proper verbiage to avoid another lecture. The doctor stood, grimacing his face into what Paul could barely recognize as a smile. He turned and opened a nearby cupboard and collected a few brochures and handed them to Paul.
"Any of these organizations will be more than willing to help you. Paul you have to understand that even a single drink could put yourself in serious jeopardy. You could reopen the varices in your esophagus, and once your liver is gone, that's it. Do you understand?" he said as Paul stared down once more at his feet, clad in mismatched socks. He couldn't stand another lecture, even if it was from a doctor. He briefly looked over the brochures of sobriety and set them down beside him, a compulsory move at best.
"I do." He answered.
"I'm not overhyping this to scare you Paul. You need to realize how serious this is. Your system won't be able to tolerate it."
Paul switched on the vacuum cleaner and the old motor rumbled to life. He pushed the thing over every inch of carpet in his apartment. With every hair, crumb, and dead skin cell it ate up, Paul could feel the physical evidence of his existence fleeting. He shut off the vacuum and replaced it in his closet and took a moment to observe his immaculately clean apartment. It had been quite some time since he had seen it this way. He smiled at the irony. He walked to his printer and reached for the latest document it had printed. He handled it with the utmost care as to not smudge the freshly printed ink. He read over it once more, to make sure there were no grammatical errors as he had been writing some form of this letter his entire life.
My Dear Friends & Family,
If you're reading this, then it is apparent that I have taken my exit from
this cruel world. Do not be sad for me. In my time on this planet, I have
lived a full life. I have known love and heartbreak, success and failure,
joy and sadness, and every emotion in between. I have strutted upon
this feckless stage of existence, desperate to discover, or at least assign
some sort of meaning to it. And yet, I have found nothing. Nothing. There
is no logic in the ideas of right and wrong. The absurdity of all things
consumes me and I feel as if I cannot continue this illusion of what I have
come to recognize as my own life. My final act has already been written,
this time by myself, and only myself. I bid you all a fond farewell.
Satisfied with the letter, he folded it carefully and inserted it into an envelope. In shaky penmanship, he scrawled 'Family & Friends' on it and set it down on his kitchen table. He took one last final glance around his apartment as a brief smile flickered upon his face. And then he was gone.
The crisp air was punctuated with the odor of exhaust spewing from the cars whizzing by Paul as he walked down the street. The sun had failed to penetrate the thick layer of clouds, thus casting his surroundings in a greyish hue, highlighting the dreary features of the city he hated so much. The sidewalk was cracked and buckled under his feet, the remnants of years of a neglected infrastructure. The dilapidated houses lining the busy thoroughfare were wrought with sagging roofs and peeling paint as broken down automobiles littered the yards with sporadic tufts of crab grass struggling to grow beneath them. A few houses had neglected to draw the curtains, affording Paul a brief voyeuristic glimpse into the intimate nature of a stranger's existence. The common denominator uniting them all was the oversized flat screen televisions that were mounted proudly upon the walls; extravagant indicators of where their financial obligations were held. The aroma of fried potatoes seeped through a flimsy screen door and wafted together with the obtrusive smell of tobacco and marijuana, entangling with one another producing the distinct fragrance of the lower class. A few yards away, steel structures painted in the primary colors of youth arranged themselves into a meager playground for the neighborhood's children. As Paul passed, the air was filled with their shrieks and laughter as they wildly recited the recycled curse words of their parents. The future, Paul reasoned, was as dim as the afternoon was gray.
Up in the distance, Paul caught sight of his salvation. The neon sign flickered, lighting up the gloomy afternoon like some northern star. The run down tavern never failed to provide him the solace he craved from the world he no longer cared to understand. As Paul approached the entrance he saw a woman frantically searching through her purse. In frustration she set it down on the pavement to provide a more stable surface for her rummaging. Paul paid little attention to her as he reached to open the door to the tavern.
"Hey, do you have a smoke I could bum?" she asked in a smooth cadence. Paul paused momentarily, turned to face her and smiled. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. "Oh, wow. Thank you so much. I could've sworn I brought some with me." She said, her relief more than apparent. Paul looked at the pack in his hand for a moment, considered his current circumstances briefly, and handed the entire thing to the woman.
"Here, you can just have it." He said. Her face contorted in confusion.
"Don't worry about it. Just take 'em." He said curtailing her protests.
"Well thank you." She said. Paul observed her as she smiled. There was a sadness about her that he didn't care to identify with. Not today.
"Don't mention it." He said quickly as he opened the door to the tavern. The familiar musty scent greeted his nostrils and immediately set him at ease. The place was sparsely populated with patrons. Some sat in pairs and some sat alone. A middle aged woman with tanned, leathery skin and bleach blond hair fixed her lustful gaze upon him from her table in the corner. Her dull eyes found their spark, from behind the clumpy mascara lining them as she seductively crushed an ice cube between her teeth, her mouth slightly parted; seeking the attention she desperately craved in the only way she knew how. Paul offered her his smile in an act of pity alone, and made his way to the bar and claimed is favorite bar stool. There were two young women, presumably in their early twenties a few stools over, completely engrossed in conversation. The bartender approached him as he dried his hands on a bar towel.
"Hey Paul. What're you having tonight?" he said casually in the tone he used for all of his regulars.
"A shot of your most expensive whiskey and a beer back." He answered as the bartender's eyebrows raised slightly.
"What're we celebrating tonight?"
"Life." Paul answered as the bartender poured him a shot. Paul took the shot glass in his hand and observed the dark golden liquid. He could almost hear the chorus of his loved ones singing the mournful ballad in his head to put the drink down. He downed the shot to drown them out. It worked, as it had countless times prior. It burned as it went down, spreading its warmth from the back of his throat to the bottom of his gut. Immediately he ordered another shot. The bartender obliged his request and he now had two glasses of beer and another shot sitting before him. The second shot went down as smoothly as the first as he returned its empty container to the bar top. The bartender returned to washing glasses leaving Paul alone with his thoughts. As he continued to sip the beer, his life began to flash before his eyes; a montage of his failings, his misery, his heartbreak and disappointment scored to the tune of a twang soaked country song blaring from the juke box. What a fucking cliché, he mused, as the chatter of the two women nearby grew louder, forcing him to listen to their conversation.
"Oh my God. So I l totally logged on his computer and looked up his web history." The blonde one uttered ending her sentence in an upward inflection. Her voice was the equivalent of auditory candy, the artificial sweetness nearly rotting Paul's ears. Her brunette friend was surprised at her admission as she took a sip of her drink.
"Are you serious? That's like totes inappropes! But what'd you find?" The brunette said, taking no care of her heinous assault upon the English language.
"Get this! He's like totally obsessed with Kim Kardashian's ass! Like he looked at so many pictures of it. It was like a Goddamn shrine!"
"That's sick. You should totally dump him." The brunette advised as she chewed on her straw. The blonde's face went blank, indicating that this was not a feasible option.
"Or maybe, I don't know, maybe I should just get butt implants." She offered. Paul cringed inwardly at such a display of the derailment of modern society. His bleak outlook was sustained by their frivolous conundrum. He found it insulting that he was within their proximity, contemplating his very real angst, while their incessant chatter, so trivial in nature, flooded his atmosphere. He gulped a few sips of his beer and signaled to the bartender for another shot.
"Or perhaps, you could briefly take pause, and examine the ontological nature of being, and remove these false idols from your life." Paul interjected. The two girls stared at him blankly. Much in the same way a toddler reacts to a math problem.
"Actually, I stopped watching American Idol when Paula and Simon left." The blonde one said with an overblown sense of security. Paul laughed heartily as he took a sip of beer, somehow finding their ignorance slightly reassuring.
"Oh you are making this far too easy for me. What are you girls drinking?" he asked.
"Sex on the beach." The brunette answered, eliciting another smile from Paul.
"Of course you are. That's perfect. Hey Frank, can I get two Trysts on the Beach for my friends here?" he asked.
"Coming right up, Shakespeare." Frank said sardonically.
"Trysts on the Beach, because there's no plural for Sex on the Beach. I like it." A woman's voice said. Paul immediately pivoted on his bar stool and saw the woman from outside sitting a few stools down from him smiling.
"Yes! Finally, the validation that has eluded me for so long." Paul said smiling to her. He took another gulp of his beer, his stomach growling in protest.
"Nice to meet you Jane. I'm Paul." He said as the corners of his mouth upturned into a smile that he couldn't deny.
"Let me buy you a drink. Least I can do for the smokes."
"Well, if you must." He said playfully, with the recent influx of alcohol marooning the foulness of his mood. Jane smiled and signaled to Frank for another round for the both of them. Paul reached down and patted the barstool next to him and motioned for Jane to come closer. "Allow me to offer you a front row seat." He explained. Jane smiled and relocated next to him.
"A front row seat to what, might I ask?"
"A front row seat to the fall of Rome." He explained with a tilt of his head to the two young women. They both looked to them as Frank set the two fruity cocktails before them. They grasped the slender glasses, their long neon acrylic talons catching the light as they delicately clinked the glasses together.
"Cheersies!" They said in unison and ferociously sucked up the drink through the straws. When the blond reached the halfway mark, she set the glass down on the counter and massaged her forehead.
"Oh my God, I have the worst brain freeze ever!" she exclaimed.
"Her poor brain never stood a chance, did it?" Jane whispered to Paul. He laughed and turned to focus his attention upon her. She smiled shyly as if she believed her quip was a tad too harsh.
"It would appear so." He returned. The moment stalled slightly, but was interrupted by Frank as he set the new round of drinks before them. Jane raised her glass of beer.
"What should we toast to?" She asked as Paul followed suit and picked up the shot glass.
"To happy endings." He said. For a brief moment, Jane's smile faltered slightly as they clinked glasses.
"To happy endings." She said as she sipped her beer while Paul downed the shot of whiskey. He traded the empty container for the glass of beer that sat before them and smiled once more to his newly acquired audience.
"So Jane. Tell me, what brings you to this fine establishment at three in the afternoon?" he asked as he felt his body relax, operating more fluidly now that the alcohol was doing its job. Jane smiled, somewhat reticently as her eyes averted Paul's to stare at the glass of beer in her hand. Nervously she traced small circles with her finger on the bar top.
"Oh, trust me. I have my reasons. But I'm not in the habit of depressing strangers whom I've only just met." She said heightening Paul's curiosity.
"Trust me. I have reached the rock bottom of depressing. I've actually even started to dig." He said offering a sincere smile. "I've got another shovel if you care to join me." Jane couldn't help but laugh.
"Well, I've had some recent life events that have caused me to become somewhat of a burgeoning alcoholic." She explained quietly.
"Well allow me to officially welcome you to the club. The price of admission is a faulty liver." He teased, relieving them both of the heaviness of the moment. She smiled to him, her blue eyes twinkling faintly. Paul soaked up his small victory with a grin.
"So what do you do Paul?" she asked, robbing him of the grin with a question he hated answering. Suddenly he remembered that today was different. He could be whatever he desired, as he would never be faced with the situation to be proven wrong.
"I own a recording studio." He said reveling in the facade of a life-long ambition never realized. It was a short lived moment of satisfaction, as the lie only created an emptiness in the pit of his stomach. He filled it with another sip of beer. Jane smiled, somewhat perplexed.
"And what is the owner of a recording studio doing in a dump like this?"
"What can I say? I'm inspired by the everyday plight of the common man." He answered. The air was then filled by a deep guttural belch from a bearded gentleman occupying a video poker machine. He cleared his throat, offering no apology for his transgression and wiped his mouth on the inside collar of his t-shirt and inserted a crumpled 20 dollar bill into the machine. The machine spit the bill out in protest. He rapped angrily upon the machine as brute force was the only viable solution he saw fit.
"You're right. It's fascinating stuff." Jane said sarcastically with a slight tilt of her head in his direction. Paul shook his head slowly and reached for another sip of beer.
"God, this place is so depressing." He uttered.
"What do you find depressing about it?"
"Look around you. I mean, look at these people! It's like we're witnessing their tedious march to the grave filled with the mundane distractions of broken ambitions. Are you kidding me?" He sneered.
"Well nobody is forcing you to be here." She said not knowing how true her words would resonate with him.
"I'll drink to that." He said laughing slightly. Jane observed him closely, as if she were still making her mind up about him.
"I must admit, I find you very intriguing." She said.
"You shouldn't. I'm nobody special." He said, her subtle praise bringing out an uneasiness in him. "My existence lies in the troubling dichotomy of thinking I'm better than everyone to only be continuously shown that I'm actually far worse." He added.
"Why do you feel the need to make the comparison at all?" she asked. He didn't have a scripted answer for her which compounded his frustration. He shrugged slightly and reached for the last glass of beer that sat before him and washed down the remaining contents. Glossy eyed, he set it down on the counter.
"I don't know." He said softly. "You up for another round? It's on me this time." He asked.
"Sure, why not?" She said drinking the last of her beer. Paul ordered another round from Frank. A few moments passed with neither of them saying anything. Paul observed her in his peripheral as she sat beside him tracing her finger in the outline of the ring stain from the empty glass. Instinctively he glanced at her ring finger to find it empty, except for the band of lightened flesh, indicating that a ring had recently been removed. It was a shame that he had to meet her tonight, as divorcees were somewhat of his specialty.
"It's so ironic, this life, isn't it?" she asked as Frank set the new round of drinks before them.
"I mean, I'm in my situation because of alcohol, and yet I've managed to find a sort solace in the stuff, which is the cruelest trick of all."
"How do you figure?" Paul asked, genuinely perplexed as Jane seemed to grow more interesting by the minute. She sighed deeply, briefly gathering herself.
"Ah, never mind." She said quietly. She took a small sip of her beer and set it down carefully on the counter as Paul continued to observe her. "It's really absurd for me to be here, doing this right now. But I can't seem to stop." She said, laughing uncomfortably.
"Trust me. It's not your fault."
"Oh, is that right?" she asked with a slightly incredulous smile.
"I blame Johnny Appleseed." Paul said in a matter of fact tone. The accusation caught Jane off guard as she looked to him with a slight frown.
"What? What does he have to do with anything?"
"The only seeds that Goddamn bastard planted were the seeds of alcoholism." He explained.
"Oh come on Paul. Johnny Appleseed was an American hero!" Frank chipped in as he poured a glass of beer from the tap.
"I hate to break it to you Frank, but he most certainly was not." Paul said as Jane began to laugh. "Those precious seeds he planted? They only produced inedible apples. What do settlers do with inedible apples? Turn them into hard cider!" He explained. Frank rolled his eyes and delivered the beer to the other side of the bar, leaving Jane as Paul's captive audience.
"Why would he plant inedible apples?" she asked.
"Because that's typically what the seed of one apple will produce. You have to graft the trees together in order to get a good apple tree. Lazy bastard never took the time; he just recklessly planted his seeds and went about his merry way, leaving those poor, unsuspecting settlers in the clutches of that tempting hard cider. They never stood a chance." Paul said, allowing a smile to break up his serious expression as Jane continued laughing. He found it oddly comforting to be the reason for her laughter.
"What are you, some sort of American Folklorist?" she asked. Paul laughed and shook his head, pleased that he had managed to weave that bit of knowledge he had gleaned from trolling Wikipedia on his phone while waiting at the unemployment office a few days prior.
"I thought everyone knew that." He said nonchalantly.
"Yeah right." She said as she sipped her beer. "It's so much easier to blame others for our problems, isn't it?" she added, deep in contemplation.
"It's the American way." Paul added.
"So, about a year ago, I was driving and was hit head on by a drunk driver." She said, nearly sobering Paul right up. For a moment he was speechless as he sat there observing her for any traces of the accident.
"How badly were you injured?"
"I managed to make it out with only a few scrapes and bruises." She answered as Paul allowed himself to relax slightly.
"Still, I would imagine it can be a traumatic experience that can take quite some time to get over." Paul said reaching for his glass of beer. The sudden turn in dramatics had slightly lessened the effects of his drinking. Sober was a destination he never wished to experience ever again. He brought the glass to his lips and poured the poison down his throat.
"My husband was killed though." Jane said in a banal tone as if she were casually discussing the weather. Paul abruptly ceased his drinking and slowly returned the glass to the counter. His heart began to pound as he contemplated what Jane had just said. He opened his mouth, but no sound came out. This wasn't something he could joke and charm his way through. Jane half smiled to him. "You see, that's why I don't tell people. Their first instinct is to comfort me, but they don't know what to say."
"You're right. I feel completely ill equipped to offer even the slightest bit of comfort to you. I…I can't even begin to fathom what you must be going through." He said choosing his words carefully.
"It's really okay. I mean, of course it's not okay, but it's not your responsibility to make me feel better." She said as she took a swig of her beer. "This seems to be doing the trick, anyway." She finished, gesturing to her beer.
"What about the other driver?" Paul asked, unable to move on from her revelation.
"Some poor teenager, who was also killed. But it was all my fault." She explained.
"How was it your fault? Were you driving?"
"No, my husband was driving. But we were fighting because we were late for this stupid potluck at my friend's house. So I made him stop at the store to pick up some last minute items that I thought we needed. If we would've just gone straight, we would've avoided everything." She said.
"Jane that is horrible. I am so sorry, but you truly can't blame yourself." He said fighting the urge to take her by the shoulders and shake her until she understood that there was absolutely no way she was responsible for something so random and terrible.
"Why not? It was my decision that put us in that position."
"But Jane, you can't think like that. If that's the case, then technically isn't it your friend's fault for having the potluck?" he persisted. Jane smiled faintly, kindly dismissing his suggestion.
"He came out of the store with a brown paper bag and tossed it to me. I opened it up and saw that it was a beer. He told me I should drink it to calm myself down." She said as Paul's features softened into a warm smile.
"Sounds like he had a sense of humor." He said as Jane smiled bitter sweetly.
"He did. It's so sick though, the last thing he gave me was a beer, so in a twisted way, I feel closer to him when I drink. I know, even saying it out loud sounds insane, but I don't know how else to explain it."
"People have different ways of coping." He offered, as he shook his head slightly, allowing the reality of her saga to sink in. He began to feel sick to his stomach as Jane nervously sipped her beer. Her pale skin was contrasted by the darkness of her hair, as her delicate features had hardened slightly, under the weight of the world. He was suddenly flooded with guilt. Here he sat, bemoaning his own self-proclaimed beleaguered existence while this beautiful woman sat before him, enduring an inexorable amount of anguish. In comparison, his own problems seemed as trivial as the two young women he had so easily dismissed just moments earlier. The realization was completely demoralizing as he found himself sinking into an even deeper level of self-loathing. "What is the point of this life, if it can be so easily taken from some, and wasted on others?" he said, the words dripping with distaste.
"If you figure it out, let me know. But I guess it makes every moment, no matter how mundane it may seem, precious, which is slightly depressing in and of itself. "
"I couldn't agree with you more. Like I'm supposed to be appreciative of my shitty life? Like I'm supposed smile in the face of another dreary day filled with disappointment, with the giddiness of simply being alive?
"Why not?" She asked with a weak, but hopeful smile that drove Paul to his breaking point.
"How do you do that? You lost your husband, and yet, here you sit, offering me a smile? Do you know that I've completely lost my capacity to smile? I look around this place and see absolutely nothing worth smiling over. But yet, you have the audacity to come in here with a tale far more tragic then my own and fucking smile and introduce me to an even deeper level of unworthiness." He said nearly out of breath.
"Paul, it's all relative." She said softly.
"No. That's bullshit. It's just a lie we tell ourselves to further the illusion that our petty problems are legitimate, when there are people out there who are truly suffering."
"You should re-examine your logic. Do you not allow yourself to be happy because you think someone else out there has it better than you?" she asked. For a moment, her question silenced the circus of insecurity dancing about in Paul's head. He didn't have a response and she met his silence with a wry smile. "I thought so." She continued. The analogy trickled its way into Paul's brain firing the neurons necessary for the beginning of an important reconciliation. He chuckled slightly.
"Can I tell you something?" he said leaning closer to her.
"Please. Tell me anything."
"You are the most beautiful creature I have ever seen." He said allowing the drink to slur his words ever so slightly. It was obvious that Jane was not expecting to receive a compliment from him, as her face reddened somewhat. She laughed softly, allowing her entire face to engage in that tragic smile that Paul was slowly becoming accustomed to.
"Thank you. That's nice of you to say." She said offhandedly, slightly embarrassed.
"I mean it."
"I know. I'm sorry; it's just hard for me to accept compliments these days. The guilt…it's still there, you know?" Paul nodded his head. "Why was I spared? What's so special about me? I mean, my husband was a much better person than I'll ever be. If the situation were reversed, you can bet that he wouldn't be coping with the loss of his family with the stuff that tore them apart. I mean, seriously, what is wrong with me?" she asked. Flustered by her own burst of admissions she reached for her glass of beer with an unsteady hand. Paul struggled to find the appropriate words to say to reassure her, but came up empty. Instead he simply observed her as she fought to keep her mouth from trembling, barely succeeding.
"I wish I had the right words to say to you." He offered.
"Don't worry. They don't exist." She replied as she took a sip. "But thanks for trying." She added. They smiled to each other both seemingly recognizing something in one another. Jane reached for her purse and grabbed the pack of cigarettes. "I think I'm going to go for a smoke." She said.
"I'll join you." Paul said as they both rose from their bar stools. "Alright, so I think it's pretty clear that both of us deserve a hug right about now." He said in a blatant attempt to lighten the heavy mood.
"Is that right?" she asked smiling. Paul smiled and held out his arms.
"Yep. Bring it on in." he said motioning with his hands. Jane laughed and glanced around her surroundings to see if anyone was watching. "Don't be shy, these losers aren't going to tell anyone." He added causing her to laugh. Somewhat reluctantly, she embraced him. She was completely rigid in his arms as he inhaled the aroma of her fabric softener from her clothes. She was without perfume, as she was without an agenda, which only added to her authenticity in Paul's eyes. Paul hugged her tightly as if the action would magically piece her back together. She slowly began to relax into his embrace until Paul felt the all too familiar pain rise from his stomach.
He ripped himself away from her as a surge of his indiscretions began to spew violently from the depths of his stomach in the form of red, congealed blood. He doubled over in pain, helplessly watching the blood drip from his mouth to the dirty floor of the bar. The pain was intolerable, as he dropped to his knees as Jane looked on in complete shock and horror.
"Oh my God! Paul, are you okay?" she shrieked. Her outburst drew the attention of the entire bar, as all eyes were now focused upon Paul. The sobering remembrance of his dark mission came flooding back to him. For a brief span, he had somehow forgotten, as Jane proved to be quite the distraction. His regret oozed out of him with each drop of blood. As his time began to dwindle, he collapsed on his back and gazed up at the ceiling, observing in great detail the soggy ceiling tiles from the leaking roof. How fitting that his last image of his life would be the brown erratic stains of an overburdened and neglected facade. He saw Jane, her face ashen with concern lean over him. Her mouth was moving but he couldn't hear her over the pounding of his heart. It was beating so rapidly that he had trouble distinguishing the separate beats, as it appeared to hum from within his chest. As the alcohol tore through his stomach lining, the resulting blood combined with the blood of the ruptured varices in his esophagus and pooled in the back of his throat, suffocating him with his very own life source.
Completely distraught at the unfolding situation, Jane reached for Paul's hand to listen for a pulse. She shook her head slightly.
"I can barely feel his pulse! What is happening to him?" She asked frantically.
Chaos erupted around them as the patrons of the bar clamored about, shouting their suggestions, struggling to remember the life saving techniques from their long forgotten health classes. As Paul teetered on consciousness, his essence began to evaporate, leaving his body much in the same way the fragrance departs from the flower; the scent lingering, invisible but still present. From his new vantage point, he stared down at himself, weak and pallid, surrounded by a crowd of fretful strangers. The middle aged woman he had smiled at upon entering had begun to cry, her tears leaving black jagged streaks of mascara upon her cheeks.
"The ambulance is on its way!" Frank said in a tone that Paul hadn't heard before. He recognized it as concern. The belching gentleman had left his post at his video poker machine to consult his phone as to the proper techniques of CPR. His pudgy fingers trembled as he hurriedly brought up his phone's search engine.
And then there was Jane. She knelt by his side clutching his hand as the tears dropped from her eyes to land silently upon his face. He would've given anything to be able to feel it. These people who were but mere strangers to him were now devastated at his departure; strangers that he had insulted and dismissed so casually. He had completely underestimated their capacity to care. His perceptions, fraught with self-imposing limitations, had captured a variance of his life that he had found unbearable. But it was a simple variance; a picture acquired through the faulty lens of self-hatred. Beyond his own limiting scope, he caught a rare glimpse of the world as it truly was. It was a wasted revelation.
"What's going on?" a woman's voice said from the crowd. The young women Paul purchased drinks for emerged from the restroom and were surprised to see the entire group of people gathered together. The blond pushed her way to the center of the crowd, her face sobering upon seeing Paul on his back. "Everybody back up! Give him some space!" she ordered.
"The ambulance is on its way." Jane informed her, annoyed at her intrusion.
"Good. I need you to step back." She said.
"What do you think you're doing?" Jane asked allowing a sneer to form on her face as she stood. The blond knelt before Paul, fastened her hair into a pony tail and tilted Paul's head back, opening up his airway. She felt for his pulse and began to administer CPR. "What are you doing? Do you know how to do that?" Jane asked frantically.
"Don't worry! She's like an amazing lifeguard. She totally knows what she's doing." Her brunette friend chirped as the blond clasped her left hand over her right hand and drove the base of her wrist into his chest in an effort to jumpstart his heart. Paul was riveted as he watched yet another stranger struggle to restore his life. He began to notice the presence of what felt like an anchor gradually attach itself to him, like some phantom limb; a sinewy tether connecting him with his broken down body.
The blond moved from his chest and brought her mouth down over his to breathe air into his lungs. She sat up straight, her chest rising and falling as she struggled to catch her breath as the crowd looked to her anxiously. Her face, void of the ambivalence that Paul was accustomed to, grew very serious. She found her friend in the crowd and locked eyes with her and tightened her lips with a subtle shaking of her head, indicating that she feared it was hopeless. The brunette allowed her optimistic expression to wilt into the gloom that surrounded her.
"Keep going!" Jane cried, vocalizing what Paul only wished he could communicate. In his suspended state, he was able to cut through the haze that had blinded him for so long and catch a glimpse of the pure potential that emanated from him. The blond lifeguard repeated the cycle once more of pumping her hands on his chest and pausing to breathe into his mouth. After another cycle, Paul's chest began to rise and fall, with each breath of oxygen creating a maelstrom of energy; the alluring nature of existence beckoning his return.
"He's got a heartbeat!" the blond exclaimed as the crowd erupted in muted celebrations. "It's weak, but it's there." Paul inhaled deeply, the oxygen coursing through his system, awakening the nerves and organs from their brief slumber. The pain was still there; but so was he. His eyes fluttered open to see Jane smiling down at him. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and knelt by his side.
"You're going to be alright." She whispered as the sound of approaching sirens grew louder.