Romance / A hotel bar / A coil of rope / 992w
“You know, I may not look like it, but I know a thing or two about love.”
I’d had my speech prepared for months. Rehearsed it, updated it, polished its turns-of-phrase like I polish the tulip glasses. It’s my “what-love-is” speech. All of my friends in the industry told me to get one ready and expect to deliver it often; it was part of the job description.
But for so long, not a soul had sat down at my bar in L’Orange, asked for a shot of somesuch liquor, and poured out a wounded heart. I was beginning to think I didn’t look the part, neither stoic nor sympathetic.
And then this woman had come in just before closing, her makeup clouded around her eyes, to quietly order a beer. She had a misty look about her. There was no one else in the bar; the only sounds were the rush of traffic outside and the lilt of piano filtering in from the lobby. I had known then: it was time to impart the ancient wisdom of my craft.
“That’s alright. I know three or four things about it.”
Caught off guard by her response, with a glass of water halfway to my mouth, I promptly forgot what came next. Was it the part about loving yourself? The line on acknowledging flaws in others? I blinked like a stupefied fish.
“Well, it’s all vulnerability, isn’t it?” she said.
“Um,” I began again.
She curled a hand under her chin. “It’s being attacked by a mountain lion, from above, and liking it.”
“I guess that’s one metaphor,” I said after a moment.
“Probably too violent. I’ll keep thinking.”
Hastily, I shoved some peanuts into my mouth, to buy time with chewing. “Maybe go with trust, instead of vulnerability. More positive connotations.”
She looked thoughtful. “I think love has enough positive connotations already.”
“Oh. Well, fair enough.” This was not following the appropriate metaphor I had concocted in my mind: her the vessel, I the pourer.
She sipped her beer. “Listen, do you have any of the good stuff?”
I did have the good stuff; the high-end gin we kept in the old dumbwaiter back behind the bar, out of the sight of drunk patrons who would run out on their tabs. I retrieved it from the behind the coiled-up rope at the bottom of the shaft and stirred up a martini, which she accepted with the smallest of grateful looks.
By then, I had regathered my thoughts and some of my swagger. “I know this ain’t your best night—“
But she had started to cry. And it wasn’t the kind of cry I could easily dismiss. I’d seen plenty of people cry, but none of them ever looked like they were holding back a scream.
“Hey…come on….” I found a stack of cocktail napkins and set them in front of her. She pressed a handful to her face and let out just one sob.
“He told me that he didn’t believe in love, and never did,” she said, after lots of dabbing. “And he said he thought I understood that.” The near-scream had receded from her face, but I kept carefully checking the corners of her mouth, and the wrinkles at her brow, to make sure it didn’t reappear.
“I’m sure he didn’t mean it like that,” I said, but then I regretted it, because I had no idea what the man had meant.
“I proposed,” she said, and I was grateful she’d ignored me. “It was stupid.”
“Don’t say that,” I said softly.
“It was. I did know. I mean, that he didn’t believe in love, that way.” For a moment she looked nauseous. “I just didn’t believe in his disbelief. It was seven years, you know.”
“Seven years? And he just shut you down like that?” I knew it went against protocol to get personal. It just happened. Maybe the reason why most of my customers never opened up was that I seemed like the kind of guy who got personal.
She buried her face into the napkins again. “So fucking stupid,” I heard her whisper.
“You aren’t stupid,” I said again. “Stop saying that.”
A swollen eye emerged from the tissues and regarded me in annoyance.
“I’m just saying, when you’re talking about caring about someone,” I persisted, off-script and flustered. “Stupid doesn’t really apply, does it?”
She didn’t respond, but dropped her gaze to the bar. I gave the martini a little shove forward.
“I guess I hoped he didn’t really mean it,” she said, after a few sips. “Or that he’d change.”
For my next move, I chose silence.
“And I thought,” she started, and then swallowed thickly. “I thought he felt something.”
My speech involved an explanation of how love changed and sometimes it was impossible to control, and how all of humanity was doomed to be buffeted by the fickle maelstrom of its own nature, but even as I ran those lines in my head, they felt beyond ridiculous, beyond pompous, even. Here was this crying person. What was I doing to help?
My shell cracked. “I don’t know. I’m sorry I don’t know. I’m just really sorry.”
“You don’t know what?” She sounded genuinely confused.
“I mean, what love is or what to tell you.”
She actually smiled a tiny smile, and shook her head a little bit. Her hair brushed at her jawline. “I don’t want to know what it is. Trust me, I don’t need any more big reveals tonight. Three or four things about love are enough.”
I leaned both forearms onto the bar and frowned out at the overpass outside, considering this. Then I fished a pen from my pocket and grabbed a napkin that wasn’t tear-stained.
“Would you mind at least telling me the three or four things? I figure I should start collecting. If I ever want to be good at this.”
So she did.
Writer’s block is real, y’all. This was the absolute hardest story for me to write yet. I kept putting it off, mostly because I didn’t like my idea, or I didn’t like what I’d done with it, and I have next to no experience writing romance. This was definitely a learning experience for me. Real romance takes time…but maybe that’s just my excuse. If anyone can recommend good short romance stories, I need some models.