I had an interesting conversation. It started out mundane, as most interesting conversations do. I mean, you can’t just jump right to the interesting stuff, you’ve got to go through the introductions before you get to the foreplay that leads to a ripping good conversation. For the purpose of this post, and as a courtesy to your time, I will cut right to the sex. That is, the interesting bits of the conversation.
“The Bible is obviously bullshit,” she said. “How can anyone who believes that shit be taken seriously?”
I was sitting on a bar stool in Mortdecai’s Pub on Pittsburgh’s South Side. I had been chatting with this girl who had just sat down next to me because, as she said, she was tired. I was wondering when she was going to wise up and move away from me, and hoping that she wouldn’t. Her friends were coming by every ten minutes or so it seemed, but she never took the out and made good her getaway. She stayed, and we talked.
I thought about her question, and how to answer it without coming off as a religious nut. I have my own issues with organized religion and the dogma it spews, so I agreed that it was bullshit, and asked her to tell me what she thought was the stupidest part of the Bible. She scoffed and said, “What isn’t stupid about the Bible?”
I could not help but look a bit taken aback, and she caught it (she was very sharp) and backpedaled a bit.
“I mean, the parts about being a good person and not killing anybody, that’s all fine,” she said, “but come on — it contradicts itself at every turn.”
“Example,” I challenged.
“Well, alright…” she thought for a moment, “Right at the very beginning, in Genesis, it says God made the earth in seven days. On the first day, there was light, but the sun didn’t come until a few days later.”
“Ah,” said I, “Yes, good point, but in this particular instance, we must remember that the Bible is never to be read literally. It’s written in the language of the Angels, in symbolism.”
“Oh, no!” she said, “You believe the Bible!”
I laughed. “Well, yes, I do, to an extent.”
Now it was her turn to volley back. “Explain,” she said.
“Alright,” and I explained, as I have many times to painfully bored people in pubs, that when God says “Let there be light,” it does not mean that he flipped on the sun like a light switch.
I said, “‘Let there be light’ is the first thing God says in the Bible, which is Latin for book, and what do we get from books?”
She smiled. “Knowledge,” she said, already seeing where I was going. I pointed to the tip of my nose and then to her, trying to be cute but probably coming off like a bit of a douche. I can’t help it. That’s just who I am.
“Yes,” I continued, hoping she would look past my ‘on-the-nose’ gesture. “And how do we symbolize knowledge in art, from the halos around the heads of enlightened people, from Jesus to Buddha to Mohammed, to the light bulb above Wily Coyote’s head?”
She was nodding, trying to speed things along so as to get me to shut up. “Light,” she agreed.
“Exactly, so what God is actually saying there is, ‘Here is this book, here is knowledge, if you know the symbolism.’ And then later, he turns on the sun.”
And that was when she said, “Fascinating. Well, I’ve got to go with my friend…”
Actually, no. She didn’t say that. Surprisingly, she said, “So what other symbolism is in the Bible, aside from the obvious parables?”
I know! I was as surprised as you are. She wanted me to continue talking to her. She even said, “Aside from the obvious parables. Tell me about the symbolism that people tend to miss.”
And then I let her have it.
“I don’t know,” I said. I hit her with honesty. I really don’t know anything about the Bible, other than the Catholic Church edited the shit out of it to maintain a misogynistic control over the organization and plunge Europe into the Dark Ages. She already knew that, and I needed to be careful lest I slip over into the unforgivable terrain of “mansplaining.”
So I told her truthfully, “I don’t know, but it’s there. I know there is a lot of numerical coding, because certain numbers get repeated. For example, the number forty is all over the Bible. It rained for forty days and forty nights, the Jews wandered in the desert for forty years, Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights… but the Bible has been translated and mistranslated, and edited profusely over the centuries by kings and tyrants. It was once a very telling work of art, full of color and rich with symbolism, but now it’s like admiring a beautiful painting that has been desecrated to the point of being nearly unrecognizable.”
That’s when she smiled at me and said, “You’re a thinker.”
Now it was my turn to scoff. “That’s putting it lightly,” I said, unable to just shut the hell up and take a compliment. “I’m an over-thinker. That’s why I drink, to try and turn it off.” To prove my point, I took another sip from my G&T. When I lowered the glass, she was still there, just smiling at me, in a bit of an off-putting, contemplative way, the way a lady mantis might look at her mate before eating his head. I figured I’d better keep talking. Nature abhors a vacuum, and I abhor an awkward silence.
“It keeps me awake at night,” I continued. “Even if I’m exhausted. My mind won’t stop jumping down rabbit holes. It’s three in the morning, I’m almost asleep, and suddenly it thinks up, ‘When do you suppose the word mare came to mean a female horse? Was it after it meant an evil female spirit? And is that why it came to mean a female horse — because people thought they were evil spirits?’ and then I have to grab my phone and hit Google and I’m awake, chasing that rabbit until sun up.”
She laughed. “That’s the sign of an intelligent mind,” she said kindly.
“Or an annoying, drunken roommate that lives inside your skull who won’t shut up and just keeps babbling on about useless shit while you’re trying desperately to sleep.”
That odd, contemplative look returned to her face, so I figured I needed to take the compliment.
“I mean,” I backpedaled, “That’s kind of you to say, but I don’t think I have an intelligent mind. It’s more like a child that just keeps asking questions. Unlike the child, though, I never learn from any of it. I remain an idiot to this very day.”
“I often can’t sleep at night, either,” she said. “I have to sleep with some kind of noise, like with the TV on or music playing on my laptop. Otherwise, my mind goes to dark places.”
Intriguing. “What sort of dark places?” I asked.
She tightened her lips and nodded a bit as her eyes moved over my shoulder to the world that didn’t exist behind me.
“Death,” she said.
Now, when I say, “the world that didn’t exist behind me,” I’m referring to the theory that the world is a simulation that exists only in our mind, and there is literally nothing behind us until we turn to look at it and the shit behind us is created by our gaze. Now, when she said, “Death,” I got a chill, as though she was seeing something coming out of that void, and it was death that she saw over my shoulder. I thought of a line I heard in a late-night TV movie when I was a child that I never forgot. I have no idea what the movie was, but there was a man holding a terrified child over a cliff. He then pulled the child back to safety and said, “Never forget that death sits here, on your shoulder, waiting for you to forget he’s there. Never forget that, and he will never be able to take you by surprise.” I have never been able to forget that, and yet now as I grow older by the second (which I’ve always done, but now it grows more noticeable), I realize that I want death to take me by surprise.
All of that shat through my mind (no, that’s not a typo. “Shat” is the appropriate word) and I was going to tell her all about it, but I have learned that sometimes — most times, in fact — it is just best to shut the hell up.
“I think about death,” she continued. “Like, I think about what it will be like to die. What will I see? Where will I go? And what do I do to stay safe in that… state?”
Then she looked back at me, like I was supposed to hand her a brochure.
“Look to the Bible!” I said, and that got us laughing.
“Seriously, though,” she said. “What do you think you’ll see when you die?”
“I honestly can’t say,” I replied. “I’ve thought about it a lot, too, but my idea of death changes with whatever movie I just saw or book I just read.”
“How so?” she asked, finally taking a sip from her own alcoholic beverage. I mean, I assume it was alcoholic. We were in a bar, and it had a lime in it. But what do I know?
“Well, from the scientific perspective, we might consciously experience our brain dying, which could explain the colors and tunnel of light and all the other things reported by people who have had near-death experiences. But after that, if the consciousness does survive brain death, then whatever follows must take some sort of sensible shape, right?”
“But how could the consciousness survive brain death?” she seemed to be asking herself more than she was asking me. “It’s like a program still running after the computer is broken.”
“Yes, but there is still no evidence to suggest that consciousness is a product of the mind. It could exist outside the mind, moving our bodies around like pieces on a game board.”
“Interesting,” she said, nodding thoughtfully into space. “An internet of the mind.”
“Brilliant!” I nodded, raising my glass in a toast of respect so fast that I spilled a bit on my thigh. “An internet of the mind. I like that idea. The program can run someplace else even after the computer has died.”
“But where is this someplace else?”
“Beats me,” I said, “but it must keep some sort of sensible order, physical laws and the like, for the consciousness to be able to maintain its integrity, right?”
She shrugged. “I would hope so. I hate the idea that most atheists have, that there is just nothing, just… non-existence.”
“You wouldn’t find that comforting?”
“Heck no!” she said. “I like myself. I enjoy being. I’d hate to think that all of this, all of my experiences, all that I’ve learned, is just pointless.”
“But then you are requesting the unknown, which most people find even more terrifying. There is no guarantee you will end up in a beautiful garden full of unicorns. You may end up buried alive in darkness, struggling for breath that never comes.”
“Yes, thank you!” she said sarcastically, aghast at my callousness. “That’s precisely what terrifies me, and why I can’t stop thinking about it! Thank you for that fresh, horrifying thought!” She took another sip of her drink right after calling me a fucker.
“Have you tried falling asleep to white noise, or the sound of water?” I offered weakly.
“I’ve tried it all,” she said. “I find something with words — movie dialogue or song lyrics — gives my mind something to distract it from… well, for example, your little Hellscape.” She rolled her eyes and finished off her drink. I had also finished my drink, so I ordered another. I thought to ask her if I could buy her another as well. I got as far as, “Can I get you” and she dropped her tumbler on the bar and said, “Stoli and tonic.”
I ordered as her eyes moved across the room, wordlessly checking in with her friends who sat talking with two horny gentlemen by the window. We didn’t speak again until the drink order was filled. During the silence, I wanted to speak (you know about my loathing of awkward silences) but for some reason, as she was not even looking in my direction, I felt like I had to buy her conversation with the drink like I was dropping a coin into one of those fortune teller machines in an arcade. Luckily, the bartender was quick, and in short time I was handing her a fresh tumbler of Stoli and tonic.
“Cheers,” she said and tasted it. I tasted mine. It was tart.
“So what should we do to keep our minds off death?” she asked, finally breaking the silence.
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s a fascinating topic, and it doesn’t have to be all dark and scary. What if, when we die, it’s just like coming out of a dream, and we wake up in a reality where we are totally someone else, this life was only a matter of seconds in that reality, but we can still remember all of the good stuff we did here?”
She nodded, adding, “And talk about it with the people who were here with us.” She sighed. “I’d like that. And I hope I am immortal in that reality so I never have to think about this death shit again.”
I raised my glass for a toast to that pleasant idea, this time without spilling any, but she met my glass with a look.
“Seriously,” she said. “It’s fucking terrifying.”
I noticed her eyes had become wet, wetter than the eyes of someone engaged in a casual conversation, even one about death. There were tears welling up. She saw that I had noticed, and she looked away, but the movement of her head caused one tear to tumble over the eyelid, and it rolled conspicuously down her cheek.
“Jesus, are you OK?” I said. “Look, I’m sorry I put that terrible image into your mind. I should have thought…”
She looked back, sniffed, and wiped the tear off her cheek. “No, it’s fine, I’m sorry. I’m just,” she shook her head and offered a small smile. “I’m just going through some shit right now. Is it okay if we change topics?”
“Of course,” I said, but I couldn’t let it go because I’m an asshole. “Just don’t worry about death,” I said. “It’s such a common thing, it can’t be that major. Everyone does it, so it’s really probably quite mundane. It probably really is like simply waking up from a dream. I mean, if everyone does it, how hard can it be?”
Her smile grew and her eyes dried. “Death is hardest on the living,” she said, nodding at her feet which were resting on the brass ring around her bar stool. She was wearing sensible shoes, too. I realized that liked her a lot. I wanted this to become more than just a passing chat in a bar. Suddenly her head shot up and she looked at me, catching me admiring her choice in footwear.
“Have you ever lost anyone?” she asked.
“What do you mean, like at the mall?” I tried to be funny. And it worked a little.
“No,” she laughed, then stopped. “I mean, has anyone you loved ever died?”
Gravity returned to our chat and I was looking right into her eyes. They were hazel, and they demanded a straight answer.
“I’m 47,” I said. “Of course I’ve lost a few.”
“Wife?” she asked.
“No, I’ve never been married.” I hoped she would ask me how I had managed to hit 47 without getting hitched, but she stayed on point.
“Girlfriend?” she asked.
“I’ve lost them, and it hurt like hell,” I said, “But none have ever died on me.”
“So who? Parents?”
“Yep, both parents, grandparents, a cousin I was quite fond of, and last year a friend died of liver failure.”
“How did your parents die?” she asked.
“Heart attack got my dad when I was eleven,” I said. “Parkinson’s took my mom just six years ago.”
I sipped my drink to break eye contact, but when I looked back, she was staring intently at my face.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“It’s alright,” I said. “My dad was a long time ago, and I was there to say goodbye to my mother.”
There was a bit more of that awkward silence, but she broke it in the most amazing way. She touched my arm. She held her hand on my forearm for a few seconds, even gave it a little rub, and smiled into my eyes. I almost felt myself tearing up in that moment. She really was quite lovely. I remembered another line from an old movie, the Jimmy Stewart film Harvey, which I enjoy watching regularly. There is a doctor in that movie who says he knows of a grove of maple trees in Akron, where he wishes he could sit under a tree with a woman who would just stroke his hair and say, “Poor thing. Poor, poor thing.” Having a woman at your side, just to send those amazing vibrations of caring at you the way they do… Jesus, why haven’t I ever gotten married?
Oh, right, because I’m an asshole. An idiot and an asshole, the deadly twins against love.
I wanted to take this girl to Akron and find that grove of maple trees, but instead, I just said, “Yeah, hardest on the living.” And because I felt we now shared a somewhat intimate bond, I asked her, “How about you? Have you lost anyone?”
She removed her hand and broke my heart, but then looked into her glass of Stoli and tonic which was now mostly ice, and almost whispered, “Yes, I’ve lost a few, too.”
“Really?” I asked. “You certainly don’t look old enough to have lost that many.”
Her gaze shot up once more to meet mine, and she was smiling.
“Why? How old do I look to you?”
I shrugged, wishing I had never stepped on this little landmine. “I don’t know,” I said. “I’d guess 25, maybe 28. Certainly not over 30.”
Her smile widened. “Good answer!” she said, and finished the bit of Stoli and tonic had been left in her drink, the ice rattling up around her little mouth. I turned on my stool toward the bar to order another round, but she stopped me by placing her hand on my arm, the other one this time.
“No, you bought last,” she said. “It’s my turn.”
I smiled and relinquished. I must be doing okay, I thought. She knows my age, and she still wants to buy me a drink. Before I knew it, she was handing me a fresh G&T.
“What should we drink to?” she asked.
My mind raced to come up with a poignant toast, something like “To never waking up,” but it all sounded horribly corny, so I shrugged, raised my glass, and just said, “To Bugs Bunny.”
She shot me a quick look that seemed to ask if I had been paying attention to our conversation at all, but a brilliant smile broke through and she shrugged, raised her glass and said, “Fuck it! To Bugs Bunny!”
We chatted for a long time after that, just about funny and mundane things, and the mood was good. I was genuinely happy to be there with her, and largely because she seemed genuinely happy to be with me. When last call finally came, and her friends finally walked over to save her from my clutches, she asked me to walk out with her. In the cool, quiet air outside, she and I stood close together as her friends summoned their Uber. We exchanged contact information. As we looked down at our phones, I noticed two things: One, she was wearing a silver necklace with a crucifix hanging from it, and two, she smelled terrific, like lavender and vanilla.
The Uber arrived, and her friends piled into the back seat. She stayed with me a bit longer, until one of her friends called out, “Ellie, let’s go!”
She gave me a long hug, thanked me for keeping her company. I told her I hoped to see her again. She smiled, and climbed into the passenger’s seat. I watched as they all drove off, and then I wandered off to find my own way home… or an after-hours club. I felt like another drink, to celebrate having met such a wonderful girl, to having gotten her number, and to get my mind to shut up about her. I was unsuccessful.
I thought about her all that night, and through the next day. I wanted to play it cool, see if she would text me first, but she never did. Finally, after two long days of missing someone I had only just met, I sent her a text. “Hey — ” I said, “How’s your day going?”
I expected a reply text to follow within minutes, but no reply ever came. After six grueling hours, I broke down and sent another text. This one said, “Not sure you got my previous text… you OK?”
Again, I got no reply. And I am so insecure, I figured she had had fun, but wasn’t interested in pursuing anything with me, so I let it go. I never sent her another text. I hoped she had gotten home safe, but what else could I do? I had no one to call to ask about her. Still, my mind wouldn’t let that rabbit go.
For the next few months, I became a regular at Mortdecai’s. I sat as often as I could at the same spot at the bar, or as close to it as possible if it was crowded, hoping she would walk in, spot me, and beam a happy, “Hey!”
But she never walked in.
I was in Hell there for a while, and I kept telling myself, “Fuck you, you idiot. You spent one night chatting her up in a pub. Get over it already!” But at my age… I felt like I was never going to experience that again. Who flirts with a middle-aged man? Especially one who is an idiot and an asshole?
And yet nearly three times a month, I was back in that same pub, near those same bar stools, watching women come and go, passing me by like I was invisible, and wishing like Hell to smell lavender and vanilla, feel a hand on my arm, and hear her voice say, “There you are! What should we talk about tonight?”
I never smelled, felt, or heard any of that. I eventually stopped going to the pub, and the ache went away. I eventually just came to think of her every once in a while, and just think how nice it had been to sit and chat with a woman of such caliber, just once more in my miserable old life. I had other conversations in bars after that, but none that had ended with such a high note of hope, with even a hint of it ever going anywhere beyond a bar stool and a few Stoli and tonics.
That was over a year ago.
Then tonight… well, last night, I guess I could say at this point. Last night I was in a different pub, just minding my business, talking to myself and playing with my phone, as we lonely idiot assholes do, and I heard a group of women at a table all shout, “To Bugs Bunny!” and the sound of clinking glasses.
I turned, looking for that wavy blonde hair, that beaming smile, those hazel eyes. There were three women at the table, but none of them looked like her. I figured, it’s been a while, maybe she got a new look? I stood up and slowly walked by their table, my eyes searching but trying not to be too creepy. I didn’t see her, and if she was in there, she didn’t see me. Maybe she didn’t recognize me, either? We had had a few that night when we had met. I pretended to go look out the window of the pub, like I was expecting someone, then turned and made another pass by the table. This time I wasn’t quite so smooth, and I locked eyes with one of the women. I was busted anyway, so I figured, jump in and swim.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I hate to bother you folks, but… that toast you just made? To Bugs Bunny?”
Now the whole table was looking at me. No one said anything. I kept treading water.
“It’s just… someone I knew said that once. We shared a few drinks over at Mortdecai’s…”
“Did you know Ellie?” one of them asked me. I heard a voice from over a year ago in my head, “Let’s go, Ellie!”, and I got a little light headed.
“Yes, that was her!” I said. “What happened to her?” I looked around the table, checking once more for her face, but she wasn’t there. These unfamiliar faces all exchanged a look, and the one I had first locked eyes with pushed out the empty chair and said, “Have a seat.”
I sat. Maybe now I could find out what happened. Had she lost her phone? That had always been my first assumption. Or she really just wasn’t that into me, that was my biggest assumption.
“What’s your name?” this new person asked me. I told her.
“I chatted with Ellie for hours one night, over a year ago,” I said. Again, they exchanged looks, and I quickly followed with, “I know that must sound creepy as hell, to still be looking for her, but… well, we exchanged numbers, she seemed really cool, but she never responded to any texts and I never heard from her again.”
Silence. Yikes. I really was sounding creepy. I tried to play it off.
“Well, anyway, I had always just wondered what became of her. If you see her, tell her I said hi…” and I stood up to bid a hasty retreat before someone maced me, but the girl closest to me put her hand on my arm.
“No, no. Sit.”
Just that. That was all she said, and there was an energy at the table now, something in her voice, and I knew something was wrong. I sat anyway.
“I remember you,” she said. “I’m one of the girls she was with at Mortdecai’s.”
“You remember me?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she nodded. “Ellie really liked you. She talked about you for days, wondering if she should answer your text.”
“Why didn’t she?” I asked.
“She didn’t want to get into a relationship,” was the reply. That seemed reasonable enough, and in any fucking normal conversation that would have just been a ‘Well, that explains everything, thanks for telling me, have a good night’ thing.
Ellie’s friend continued. “She thought about you a lot, though, and she really wanted to talk to you again.”
“That would have been fine,” I said. “Relationship or no, she seemed like a cool friend.”
Now one of the girls started to cry, and that energy swelled up — can women just project emotion? Women are powerful empaths, is that it? — and I felt like crying myself. I started to say the only thing I could, which I thought was, “I’m sorry, did I say something wrong?” but my dumb mouth just hung open as I watched her cry. The one next to her put an arm around her.
“Ellie passed away a month ago,” said the one who remembered me. “She had cancer.”
“Oh my God,” I said as it hit me. She had had cancer when I met her. She was scared of dying. And I had said it might be like being buried alive. Like a fucking idiot. Like a fucking asshole idiot.
They filled in the details. They had taken her out that night because she was starting chemotherapy that week, and she wanted to have one more night of looking her best and going out with her friends. And she had looked good. She had been the most beautiful girl in the room. And she had spent the whole night talking to me. She had gone out to be with her friends, and she had spent the night talking to me.
To be fair, her friend said that she felt terrible looking back on that year because, at that point, none of them had really known how to act around Ellie, no one knew what to say. That night, they had actually been happy to see her talking to me. It had relieved the pressure on them to keep her mind away from her illness.
The next week, they had started the chemo. When they stuck the first needle in, she had said, “Here’s to Bugs Bunny.” Every time, when she went through that, that was what she had said. “Here’s to Bugs Bunny.” And her friends never knew why she said that, she never told them. So now, here they were, honoring their fallen with my stupid toast. A toast that had apparently become our toast. Her friends never knew why she said it, and I never knew that she had said it at all after that night.
“Our girl fought that shit for a fucking year,” she said. “At one point, it looked like it had gone into remission. But she got sick again. She was never one-hundred per cent after that first week of treatment. And then last month, she just… faded out.”
The crying girl had stopped crying now, but the energy at the table was still low. Death is hardest on the living, after all. I was numb. How could I have not known? How could I have known? Not realizing I hadn’t been breathing, I suddenly drew a sharp breath that jump-started my mind, which activated my mouth. Because that’s how asshole idiots work.
“Why didn’t she tell me?” I said. “I would’ve been there. I would have wanted to be there…”
And her friend shook her head. “No,” she said. “She wouldn’t have wanted you there. She didn’t want you to see her like that. You were her last fling, I guess, the last time she felt… she wanted you to remember her the way you saw her.” she just shook her head, looking at me with a look that said, “You just have to understand.”
“She thought a lot about texting you back, but the last thing you asked her was if she was OK, and… she wasn’t.”
Now I felt tears coming. I wiped my eyes with my thumb and forefinger, pinched my nose to try to block the tear ducts. Damn empaths and their hoodoo! Why was this hitting me so hard? It’d been one night, a fucking year ago.
The girl who had started crying said, “It’s so sweet that you waited to hear from her. Most guys would have just forgotten about her.”
Yes, but I’m pathetic, you see.
But I just said, “Yeah. Well, thank you for telling me. I’m so sorry. I’ll leave you…”
Again I stood up to run away, and again a hand — two of them this time — touched my arm and made me sit back down.
“No, you should be here, too,” said the one who recognized me. More drinks were ordered. I got a Stoli and tonic and insisted on paying for this round. I explained the origin of “Here’s to Bugs Bunny” — it had just been that I couldn’t think of anything cool to say. They told me about Ellie, a girl I had known for a few amazing hours.
Ellie had been 37 when she died. I had been 48.
Ellie had never married, either.
She had broken up with her boyfriend of 18 months because he had cheated on her. He told her he had cheated, but still, he cheated. Fucking idiot asshole that he was.
She had met me fifteen months after the break up, and five months after she found out about the cancer.
And then she woke up from the dream.
And I still can’t fall asleep.