The bar is unfamiliar. The crowd is older and quieter than I’m used to. They occupy booths and tables in the dim light that hides age and secrets, while I opt for the extra elbow room and more sobering light at the bar. I take the corner spot closest to the bartender and farthest from anyone else. I don’t recognize the faces that sit in booths and crowd the juke box. More important, they don’t recognize me. For one moment, I need no one to know it’s my birthday or that I was supposed to get married in a week or that I have a pending offer on my house.
The first whisky of the night is always smooth. Jura– a young Scotch, only ten years, with a caramel-like sweetness and no bite. I anchor my elbow into the bar suspending my drink just inches in front of my face. As far as home remedies go, whisky is the best I’ve found. The smell of butter and sugar mixed together like the start of a cookie dough and wafts over the rim of my glass. But when it coats my lips and my throat it holds power over too many memories — to make them vivid or disappear. Oliver used to call it a table whisky — drinkable no matter the occasion.
I nurse the first dram. Each sip tingles around my teeth.
It’s nights like these when my ring feels heavy on my left hand. I spin it around my fourth finger with my right hand as I consider my options. Everything seems vast and open ended. Even after seven months I can’t remove it. With it on, he is with me — still sitting next to me. With it on, the grey-haired men with droopy eyelids peering at me from a few seats over do not approach me, just stare at a distance. A lonely but preferable existence.
Oliver used to chat men like that up. They would talk about whisky and then business. “They’re harmless,” he’d say always thinking the best of men he thought he would look like one day. Harmless until you’re not here, I’d think.
Before Oliver died I’d often receive the unsolicited advice that people shouldn’t get married before they’re twenty-five. “Not that you two will have an issue, just something I’ve observed,” they’d say to try and soften their judgement. Since his passing those same assholes have the audacity to tell me that it’s better to have loved and lost than never loved at all. I think even Tennyson would’ve given side-eye to their callousness.
Oliver probably would’ve planned some quarter-century party for me or done something embarrassing in public to acknowledge that I’d spent another three hundred and sixty-five days on the planet. He found a special amusement in making me blush, for which I could never be annoyed at for too long. Even in a crowded party where I keep to myself, he would come over and make it feel like it was just us two and no one else. Instead I sit here acknowledging that it had been two hundred thirteen days without him. Two hundred thirteen on its own doesn’t sound like a big number, an intimidating number. But waking up two hundred thirteen mornings when it feels like I’m missing a limb or a quadrant of my heart still remains the worst injury I’ve endured. Even with two hundred thirteen days between then and now, my emotions are only secured by the skin of my teeth, only to be beckoned forward by the inquiries of curious strangers.
It’s a daily chore for me, heaving my body out of bed and going about the day. Some are more put together than others: I get up, shower, put on make-up, go to work, and interact with others in an almost cheerful manner. Others feel as though I have a wound that has yet to scab, still raw and ripe for infection. Those days I request to work from home or claim a sick day.
The last sip is more smooth than the first.
Today is Tuesday. Oliver’s mom, Nadine, calls every Tuesday. I missed her first call because my wispy blonde haired real estate agent came over for a fourth time and asked if I had made a decision on the pending offer on our– my — townhouse. I decline her second call. She leaves a message this time.
Oliver was without a will when he passed. We both were. Because no one tells you to create one when you’re in your twenties. But when he passed his parents didn’t magically forget that I existed and had created a life with their son. It was nothing like you see in the newspapers or families fighting over the end of life decisions of their deceased loved ones. At the end of it all, there was just the house so they couldn’t argue much about it if they wanted to. My name is on the deed and mortgage next to his. We both emptied most of our savings and retirement funds to afford it. I wasn’t comfortable with the idea initially, but Seattle rents weren’t any cheaper so we decided to be poor with equity.
The equity looms over me. Every month that passes, my mortgage mocks me. My bank accounts taunt me with only half as much income deposited every month when the expenses stay the same.
I put a coaster on top of my empty glass and go outside. There’s a group of people reminiscing about a time where one of them did something stupid. They’re all in a fit of laughter while their cigarettes teeter between their fingers. I light my own cigarette and play Nadine’s message. “Nora, it’s me. Nadine.” She started every conversation this way. “I hope you’re doing something nice for your birthday. I know — I know that’s what he would’ve wanted.” I want to call her back. I owe her that much. But pulling myself together long enough to order my drink, let alone having a coherent conversation has been hard enough today. I know I can’t be the strength she’s looking for. She hasn’t let go yet, not that I know how a mother would go about that task. It’s not like I am a shining example.
She used to be one of my favorite people. Her hugs are tender and her voice thoughtful and kind. Her heart was bigger and more welcoming than any other I’d encountered. But in her, I only saw Oliver. Her hugs were his. Her words were his. Her heart was his. Every so often we get together for a meal. Her eyes always look sad, not like she had been crying, but like her soul was broken mirroring my own hurt. There is a time coming when I will no longer take her calls. It is a day I dread. I delete her voicemail. Oliver hated when I did this. “But you’re not here to give me shit about it,” I mumble and exhale a cloud of carcinogens.
I go back to my stool at the bar and order a Highland Park twelve year. The barkeep tilts his head towards me wondering if I actually like Scotch this strong. Moreover, if I can afford it. Fuck off. I nod at him assuring him of my order. When I ordered a Scotch with Oliver next to me, no one questioned me. Will I have a lifetime of this so long as I sit at the bar alone? I don’t remember people questioning my taste before I met Oliver.
The first sip is bold. Whisky coats the back of my throat. The glass suddenly feels slippery between my fingers. My palms are sweaty thinking about the house. I stare at my glass sitting on top of the rich, mahogany bar trying to distract myself from the thick business card I can feel burning in my back pocket. “The couple that submitted the offer really would love to live here,” the wispy blonde-haired lady said, giving me yet another business card before I left for the bar earlier.
I didn’t live in the house — not the whole thing anyways. Our life is now a relic that I view like a museum exhibit. The occasional observation to see what had collected dust and where our dog Winston decided to nest while I am away working. I occupy our guest room and guest bathroom and most often our couch while Winston tries to find a way to comfort me another night. He wallowed with me at first for a couple months after Oliver didn’t come home. But he knows it is just us two now.
Winston knows the new routine. Without fail when I return home he will sniff my knees to inquire into my whereabouts that night, usher me to the kitchen counter for a nightcap then to the pantry for the stale cookies, that I haven’t given up on yet, before we end the night on the sofa.
The mortgage and the house attached to it are the emergency brake I’ve refused to pull. They kept things steady and predictable even as they stood as a constant reminder of the person I love and the life we had built even though I can no longer afford it.
Outside the same group of people are still reminiscing — a new story now. I tap my pack, flick my lighter. Inhale. The smoke blends with the whisky that still coats my mouth. It is not an adequate replacement for the conversation I miss but it beats standing alone with nothing to keep my hands busy while my mind churns through what-if scenarios like cogs churning at a factory.
One more. “Talisker, neat,” I request. The peated whisky compliments the smoke that still lingers on me as the glass touches my lips. It was Oliver’s favorite and the most expensive one at the bar. I have a bottle of it, still two-thirds full while the others hovered just above empty, on the kitchen counter.
He wanted to serve it at the wedding but I was quick to squash that request. Between us two, I am the frugal one. He was the one that didn’t mind added expenditures so long as there was an experience to be had.
Our three years were the fastest I’d ever lived. Filled with endless pints and spending money we didn’t have on good Scotch and rooting for our home teams and fumbling through our unkempt Spanish skills while we backpacked through Spain and asking serious questions while we’re drunk and eating cold pizza. These months after him have been the slowest — filled with more whisky and fewer memories to prove it.
They say there’s beauty in hindsight, but I suppose that’s when people have the luxury of being nostalgic with their chosen person. Guilt is temporarily washed away with each sip of smoky whisky. Now all I wish is that I could tell him yes. Replace Marie Antoinette’s words with Let them drink Scotch and see the simple yet expensive joy it brought him.
Two hundred thirteen days ago, I had no regrets. Now they stack upon one another like the wooden tiles in a game of Jenga waiting to topple and destroy what was left of my solitary existence. When I think of him, the part of my heart that was missing aches as if it still existed. Unsaid words burrowed through my thoughts and appeared when I least expected reminding me of the goodbye that would never be uttered for him to hear.
Winston is waiting for me behind the narrow window next to our front door. He sniffs my knees and ushers me to the kitchen counter for a nightcap. I forego the cookies and instead grab the last cigarette from the pack. Winston cocks his head to the side as I flick my lighter and release a cloud into the middle of the kitchen. We never smoked in the house. It’s someone else’s now.
*This story was first featured in From Glasgow to Saturn, Issue 43