Some things never seem to change. Harry’s lounge is one of them. I can’t remember how many years I’ve been coming here, at least twenty, maybe more. The outside is getting a little bit shabby, but I know that the inside will still be comfortable. It’s just like an old pair of shoes. Harry will be behind the bar as always, and the music being played will be from the sixties and seventies, not the noise that passes for music now. Margaret and I used to come here to dance and sip our Martinis, and talk about the old days and our children. Today would have been our sixtieth anniversary if she had lived. We celebrated most of our later anniversaries here, close to home. I do miss her.
“Hello Harry.” I said as I walked up to the bar
“Hello Mr. Johnson, happy anniversary”
“Thanks, nice of you to remember, number sixty.”
“I’ve been expecting you; you’ve been here on this day every year ever since I can remember. I suppose you want your usual ‘silver bullet’?”
“Yes, and my booth in the corner. I might be having company.”
“Um, sure. How is your son Bobby? Are you still staying with him and his family?”
“Yes, don’t know what I’d do without them; be pretty hard for me to get by on my own now. Never thought I’d live to be eighty eight. Margaret took good care of me.”
“Why don’t you go sit down and I’ll bring your drink over to you.”
I walked over to our favorite booth, in the corner where you had some privacy. It was away from the dance floor and the band, and you could talk without shouting to be heard. The cushions were real leather, and the gold veined mirrors above them reflected the soft light. Harry brought my drink to me.
“One silver bullet,” he said, “It’s funny how they once tried to give that name to a beer because of the can’s color. It never did stick. It will always mean a Martini to me. I’ll run a tab for you.”
I took a sip, and it was perfect. “Thanks Harry.”
He walked back behind the bar, looked in a phone book, and started to dial a phone number. I looked around the lounge. There were a few couples having drinks and a few more on the dance floor, people in their fifties and sixties enjoying a night out.
I wonder if he’ll come. He’s come every year since Margaret died, he never forgets our anniversary. I don’t know why. For some reason it’s important to him. He has things he wants to say to me, things that he thinks only I can understand. And I have things to say to him, things I can tell no one else. What else are old friends good for? I took a long sip from my drink, and when I looked up, he was there.
“Hello Steven,” he said.
“You’re the only one that ever calls me by my middle name,” I replied.
“I’m probably the only one who knows it.”
“Still the same old wisecracking clown I see.”
“We haven’t got too many years left, might as well get as much fun out of them as possible.”
“With you it was always fun, fun and women.”
“And with you it was always serious; responsibility, dependability.”
“I had a wife and family to care for, all you ever had to worry about was yourself. Didn’t you ever care for anyone? Didn’t you ever love someone?”
“Love, what do you know about love? Because you were married for fifty five years you think you know about love? You don’t know anything. I’ve been in love with the same woman for sixty years, and I haven’t seen her for fifty nine. Her name was Alice. I can hardly remember what she looked like any more, except that she was beautiful. She was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I remember her light blond hair, those sad blue eyes, and her white transparent skin, but her other features are lost to me. I remember how delicate and fragile she was, like a Ming dynasty cup. I was afraid to touch her because she might break. For sixty years I haven’t entered a room without looking for her. I searched for traces of her in every woman I ever met afterwards, never to find any. And you ask me if I’ve ever loved anyone.”
“Infatuation is not the same as love. With love comes responsibility, you never could handle that. You had a good job, made good money. You bought apartment buildings before the Carter inflation, and they tripled in value. You wasted your money on fast cars, booze and broads. You were irresponsible.”
“You just don’t understand, do you? Alice was everything to me. When I was with her I was on top of the world. When we walked into a room together conversation stopped as everyone turned to look at her. She was ‘drop dead’ gorgeous. And she was with me! Do you know how that feels? It’s the greatest feeling in the world. She never even looked at another man in all the time I knew her. Complete strangers would come up to me and tell me how lucky I was, they didn’t know, no one knew.
I once took her to the Playboy club to celebrate her birthday. It was the fanciest place in Los Angeles that I could afford. We were upstairs, in the VIP room where everything was the best: the most beautiful bunnies, the best dishes and silverware, the best food. We had a small booth in a corner, but you could feel the eyes looking at her. It was weird. You had all of these beautiful women in their tightly fitted costumes, but people couldn’t take their eyes off of Alice. She was aware of it of course, but it didn’t seem to bother her, she just sort of accepted it as part of her fate. When she got up to go the bathroom, a man came over to our table and showed me his business card. It was the fanciest one I’d ever seen, with holographic designs and all. He was a movie producer. ‘I don’t want to intrude on you and your friend,’ he said. ‘She is a knockout! Do you think she would be interested in taking a screen test?’ I didn’t have to think about it at all, of course, it was out of the question. It would have been impossible. I told him so. ‘That’s really is a shame, she is so lovely, so delicate. Keep the card in case you change your mind.’ He walked away just as Alice was returning to the table.
She asked me who the man was. I told her what he had said and showed her his card. Her face turned ashen as she started to rebuke me, ‘You didn’t...’ I cut her off, ‘No, of course not. I’m sorry, coming here wasn’t such a good idea.’ A waiter came over with a bottle of champagne, compliments of the producer. I told him that we were leaving and to send it back with my thanks, and placed the business card on the tray with it.
We seldom dined out in public after that. We would go on picnics all the time. I’d bring a bottle of wine and she would bring some cheese, fruit and whatever. She liked doing little things like that for me. It was the only time I would see that sad smile of hers. It broke my heart and could bring tears to my eyes. We’d take long drives into the countryside or along the shore and just stop at random. She didn’t want to be with people, and I only wanted to be with her.”
“So why didn’t you marry her?”
“I would have in an instant, but she wouldn’t do it. She was right; of course, it would have been living hell for both of us, instead of just for me. You see, I couldn’t touch her. Literally. Once, when I first met her, I was handing her a drink and my hand accidentally touched hers. She pulled it back as if she had been burned by a cigarette. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘they told me I’d be all right someday, but it’s going to take some time. If you don’t want to be with me anymore I’ll understand.’ Not want to be with her? I’d have climbed mountains and crossed continents to be with her. If it was time she needed, I had all the time in the world.”
“Did you ever find out what was wrong with her?”
“Little by little I put the pieces together. I don’t think she was capable of telling me directly, it was too painful for her, but sometimes in conversations subtle hints would emerge. We used to go on long drives together, sometimes we didn’t talk for hours, then she would say something like, ‘Johnny used to like to drive fast too. He was killed in Viet Nam. We were going to be married.’ Then she would be quiet again. I never questioned her, never tried to force anything out of her. Someday she would work things out, I thought, and I would be with her when she did. Sure she drank a lot, but she wasn’t an alcoholic. She just needed to forget things. One time when I handed her a drink the sleeve of her blouse pulled up when she reached for it, and I saw the scars on her wrist. She saw my eyes looking at them and said, ‘I did that when I got the telegram. That’s why they sent me to the institution. But I’m better now. That’s what they told me.’ ”
“Did she ever say how she felt about you?”
“I was her friend. She liked to be with me. Maybe I reminded her of Johnny, I don’t know. I didn’t care. I just wanted to take care of her. I’d been on my own most of my life. When I came to California I had five dollars in my wallet and a suitcase full of old clothes. I wasn’t old enough to buy a drink in a bar. I washed dishes and then became a cook. I went to night school at U.C.L.A. extension to earn an engineering degree. I never had time for anyone else. Then one day she moved into the apartment next to mine and everything changed. You had it easy, everything came easy for you.”
“Easy? What do you know about married life? Nothing. As an engineer you made good money and pissed it away on yourself. You never had to worry about getting the down payment together to buy a house, or how to afford the mortgage payments. You didn’t’ have children who needed dental work and college educations. You didn’t have to put up with supervisors at work who knew less than you did but still bossed you around. For thirty years they took my ideas and innovations and used them, but never gave me the credit or promotions I deserved. But I couldn’t leave because I had responsibilities.”
“That was the choice you made when you married Margaret. She was a fine woman; it was the smartest thing you ever did. She loved you, took good care of you, and all you do is complain about how difficult it was.”
“I’m not complaining! I loved her, and never even looked at another woman from the day we were married. I’m just trying to make you understand the difference between your life and mine. You were young, independent, and only interested in having fun. I was always the serious one.”
“Fun! You think it was fun being with Alice virtually every free moment that I had and not being able to touch her, to kiss her, to make love to her? It was hell. Every day for more than a year I told myself that she’d get better soon; I just had to be patient. Then one day I went to her apartment and she was gone. Gone, just as silently as she had appeared. No goodbye, no note of explanation, no nothing. There had been indications, of course, but I had ignored them. I tried for months to find out were she was, but it was impossible. That’s when I started hanging out in bars, hoping that I’d run into her. Eventually I gave up hope, and just started picking up women that reminded me of her. I thought I’d eventually get over her, but I didn’t.”
“Yes, I understand now. Those were hard years for you. You yearned for order and stability in you life, but you got chaos. On the surface you life seemed to be all fun and games, but you were tied up in knots on the inside. I don’t envy you anymore.”
“Nor do I envy you. I’m glad we had this talk, it was long overdue. I have to go now.”
* * * * * * * * * * *
“Hello Bobby, sorry I had to call you.”
“No problem, I appreciate it. Has he been causing any trouble?”
“Not really, he’s just sitting there in the usual place again, looking into the mirror and muttering to himself. It does kind of spook the customers walking past his booth on the way to the bathrooms.”
“He tends to do that after having a drink or two. He starts thinking about the old days. This is his anniversary, you know.”
“Well, I’ll take him home now. Let me pay his tab, and here’s something for you. Thanks again, I’ll be seeing you.”
* * * * * * * * * * *
I looked up and saw my son Bobby.
“Oh, hello Bobby. I was just having a drink to celebrate my anniversary.”
“Yes, it would have been sixty years today. That’s a long time.”
“Yes, lots of memories, but they’re starting to fade. Soon they’ll all be gone.”
“Are they good memories?”
“I sometimes think that life is just a series of contradictions in search of a non-existent explanation. But we had a good life, your mother and me. I have no complaints.”
“I know. Come on, let’s go home.”
He held out his hand and helped me to my feet. A woman with blonde hair walked by. I turned to look at her face, but it wasn’t Alice.