A Brewing Storm (Part One)
As far as views from bar windows went, Kendall ranked this one near, if not at, the top. It looked out over a weather-worn bluff to a smooth shore shining with sea foam that captured little pockets of light, water that teased the sands with gentle caresses and delighted the eye in the evening with burning sunset hues. But she was no fair-weather admirer, not like the mere sightseers that sometimes flooded the place. She came here almost every night, clear skies or overcast, through thunder and hail. Her insides stirred with visceral pleasure and fear when she bore witness to the ocean’s power in a storm, how high the waves swelled and the might with which they swept over the sand, swallowed all of it whole. How she marveled at the violence of their impact against the face of the cliff at the far end of the beach, dreamed each surge to be the blow of a rampaging god. She often wondered what it would be like to stand down there on the shore in these storms, battered by the blinding deluge of salty spray and powerful winds, deafened by the roar of thunder that followed each heaven-splitting bolt of lightning, slammed by a wall of water rushing at the speed of an express train, to have her body broken against the rocks.
But tonight’s sky showed no signs of a brewing storm. No thunderheads, only a few streaks of cirrus that seemed to belong to a painting, not a real life vista. The sea was calm too, a honeymoon lover content to plant pecks on the shore. Seeing it like this always struck subtle chords of doubt in her heart that the storms she’d seen over the years had even occurred. It was hard to believe waters that ran this tranquil, this gentle, could ever lay a heavy hand on the sands and rocks it was now in such harmony with.
That was perhaps the view’s most intriguing quality, at least in Kendall’s eyes: the extreme oscillation between harmony and chaos, how quickly it shifted. And the independent variable? The sky, and the ocean its dependent. The shore was excluded from the equation, so perhaps it was appropriate, at least logical, that it should suffer the most of the three. A passive, silent whipping boy, unable to retaliate against the sea’s assault. But it did receive love too, and here too it was either unable or unwilling to respond in kind. Was this the source of the sea’s intermittent fits of rage? A deep sadness that lay underneath its raging exterior?
Kendall snapped herself out of her reverie, annoyed that she had drifted off again. The sea was just the sea. The shore was just a shore. It didn’t have to run deeper than that. No need to read into everything. She downed the rest of her glass. Still hated the taste, but then again, it’s not like she drank it for the flavor. A couple seconds passed before the familiar heady sensation flooded her brain.
She turned away from the window, determined to put the images outside out of her mind. Her eyes roved, scanning the room for a distraction. This place was rarely busy, which normally was part of the appeal, but nights like these made her wish for warmer company than the grizzled, beaten and broken down regulars, fused to their barstools and slumped mostly motionless over their drinks, only moving to gesture for another. Come to think of it, she did not know whether these were regulars at all, she never paid much attention to their faces or builds. For all she knew, they were all different people. Unlikely, but possible. Regardless, they all felt familiar, all carrying that same heavy air of regret, like chains hanging, swinging from their necks. Same stoop in their shoulders, same grooves etched deep into their faces, same clinking of the ice cubes in their tumblers as they raised the glasses unsteadily to their parched lips. These people were broken, all of them, and that much they had in common. Maybe that was enough.
But who was she to judge them? Or project on them, more like. What did she know about these people. She never cared enough to talk to them, or even offer a smile. Ultimately, she just craved mirrors in these people, a reflection that validated the tragedy of her own life. She laughed bitterly in spite of herself. How pathetic. This was as close as she would get to connecting: constructing relatable narratives for complete strangers so that she might feel less alone. Pretending that all of these people were just as sad and alienated as she was, so that her misery might have company, at least in her own mind. When in reality, all of them probably had serviceable lives. Probably ranged from mediocre to good, or even great, but at least they had what could pass for living. Friends to see, family to love, joys and passions and everything she had abandoned… and for what?
She had to stop these thoughts soon, or else she might start thinking of extreme measures again. Her hand was up before she had thought to raise it, and when she noticed it there, suspended and trembling, she stared at it as if seeing it for the first time. The barkeep brought her the usual, whiskey and soda, and that was all; not a word or even a glance, returning to her work without missing a beat.
Kendall barely felt this hand. The fingers moved, clenching into a fist and unclenching as she willed it, and rationally she knew it was because she willed it… but a part of her could not recognize it as appended to her body, a vital instrument of her machine. It had acted without her conscious command. Was she ever in conscious command, though? Really? Looking back, she had to concede that most of her consciousness was engrossed in rumination, wasted on fantasies. Meanwhile, she had charged her subconscious, automatic cognition with the task of living, and so it was that she existed mostly adrift, going through the motions and skirting by on the bare minimum.
Now that she had, at least for now, retaken the reins, she wondered what to do with this accessory to her self-destruction. Perhaps serve it a fitting punishment: smash it over and over against the bar until something broke? Stopping only when either the bar split in twain or her digits crumpled and twisted into useless meat?
“You all right?”
She recoiled from the voice, nearly falling from her stool. It came from her left, a soft, thin voice. She set her eyes on the source, a very average man with a mop of brown hair. He was dressed in a rumpled suit, tie hanging limp from his neck.
“I’m fine. Do I know you?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Name’s Lee. What’s yours?”
“Uh, I’m not really looking for a conversation right now, pal.”
“Move along. There’s nothing for you here.”
“I’m not looking for anything in particular.”
“Asking for my name, all of this, what are you playing at?”
“Trying to be polite? I don’t know.”
“I’m shocked that you don’t see how impolite this. Striking up an unwanted conversation with a stranger? Who taught you this was okay?”
Lee shrugged. “Didn’t have a lot of teachers. No good ones.”
Kendall softened, understanding. “Oh.”
“Anyway, sorry for invading your space. That was inconsiderate. I’ll leave you alone.”
Lee nodded, flashing a wide sheepish grin before departing, taking long, lazy strides across the room. Kendall felt something twinge, like he was pulling away at her. About to take the last of what she could never afford to lose.
“Wait,” she said suddenly.
He stopped. “Me?”
She stared at him, incredulous. “Yes, you.”
“Well it could have been someone else!”
“Just come over here.”
Lee obliged, turning to face her once more, smile still intact. She felt somewhat repulsed by him, the relentless friendliness and seeming eagerness to please. He was like a dog, and Kendall had a rule: don’t associate with dogs. Many men were the same way, and in her experience they all fell by the blade of codependency, confidence cut to pieces and no clear personality to speak of. Just emptied out husks, not much better than a fancy accessory at that point. She looked back on their memories with pity, but reminded herself quickly, as she always did, that they were not worth the trouble of trying to help. They were sad, but also venomous, so willing to draw you into their pit of despair, confusing their own passivity for “goodness.” They were “good” because they did no harm, or so they thought.
“So Lee. What’s up?”
“Just in general. What’s going on?”
“Uh, same old, you know.”
“No, I don’t. We just met.”
“I’m not much of a sharer.”
“Because there’s nothing to share. Don’t have much going on.”
“What do you mean? Are you, uh…”
“Yeah, I’m unemployed. Guess that’s the main thing that’s ‘going on.’ Or ‘not going on,’ depending on how you look at it.”
“I’m not judging you.”
“I didn’t think you would. Until you said, ‘I’m not judging you.’”
“That came out wrong.”
“Enough. Let’s just move on.”
“No, I don’t want to. I want to hear about this. Did you ever have a job?”
“What? Yes. Of course.”
“What the fuck. What are you trying to say?”
“Nothing. What’d you do?”
“I used to work at a library.”
“On my… college campus.”
“I see. When did you graduate?”
“About a year ago.”
“You’re younger than you look.”
“That wasn’t a compliment. Dude, you need to take care of yourself.”
“Your hair’s a nightmare. You’re so skinny, so pale. Do you ever go outside? Do you exercise at all? Do you eat regularly?”
“What’s with the third degree?”
“These aren’t hardball questions. Or at least they shouldn’t be.”
“Way to stigmatize my lifestyle.”
“I won’t lie to you… you’re pretty far gone. I don’t know if I can help you at this point.”
“You’re acting like I’m a wounded animal or something. I don’t need your help.”
“Well, you need someone’s help. I doubt it matters who, I mean, you’re such a doormat you can just mold your personality to get along with anyone, right?”
“That said, you do need someone who’ll be patient enough to hear out all your whining. I think I can do that. If I’m anything, I’m patient.”
Lee was not smiling. “You’re making a lot of knee-jerk assumptions about me. I don’t appreciate that, and frankly you’re pretty off the mark. I used to be like that, but not anymore.”
“What do you mean?”
“I was with someone, way back, who… pretty much made me her pet. Just a cute, or at least pitiful, thing to have at her arm. It felt like my soul had been decimated, that I was just a voided sack of meat. No mental fortitude. No willpower. Just a love-starved, well starved in a lot of ways really, weak little sponge person. Spineless. I hated myself back then. I still hate who I was. More than anything else in this world. The thought that I might ever revert to that thing makes me sick.”
“What are you sorry for? Me?”
“No… I’m just sorry that happened.”
“Yeah, me too. What a bummer.”
Lee’s smile returned after a beat, allowing the tension to drain from the room, letting Kendall know that it was okay to laugh, and so she did, downing her drink after. She liked him, in spite of herself. Would he turn out to be a loser? Probably. Leech? Possibly. But playing with him for now could be fun. Safe. When she squinted hard enough, she saw potential for a decent-looking guy. All he needed was a haircut and maybe a couple days a week in the gym.
“You want another drink? On me,” Lee said.
She glanced down at her glass, which indeed was empty. “Sure.”
“Hey, could we get two more over here?”
The barkeep nodded gravely.
“So can I get your name now? Or is that still off limits.”
“Kendall. That’s a nice name.”
“Shut up. It’s terrible.”
“It’s not! I like it.”
“I suspect you’ll just say whatever you think will make me feel good. You know what though? I’m fine with that.”
“You think that’s all there is to me. You think I don’t have any real opinions or independent thoughts.”
“Am I wrong?”
The barkeep brought over their drinks. Lee nodded and smiled gratefully. Kendall made no such gesture, going straight to the drink and nearly downing it all in one gulp.
“God. You’re out of my weight class,” Lee said.
She grinned proudly. “Stick with me, you’ll get there. I’ll make a heavyweight out of you in no time.”
He laughed. “Not sure I want to get there. Seems like a slippery slope.”
Her smile fell off. “What does? Drinking as much as I do?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You implied it.”
“How did I… look, I’m not criticizing you or your lifestyle in any way.”
“All right then.”
“Do you not believe me?”
“What does it matter. Let’s just drop it.”
Lee sighed, sipping his drink. “Okay then.”
Kendall’s gaze snapped back to him while his was fixed to the bar. She tried to read his face, an unusually difficult text to decipher. He only had a couple variations of the same expression, a sad, tired half-smile. Now that she was looking harder at him, she could trace the deep lines drawn by his cheekbones and brow, the dark bags hanging under his faintly bloodshot eyes. The eyes were hard to look at when held in a cursory glance, so watery and tinged with red at the rims, but when taken in for more than a moment they started to pull you in, especially when they were trained on you. Those molten, still pools of obsidian-adjacent cast a gaze heavy enough to hurt, twin vortices that could be deep enough to swallow the world.
“I’m sorry,” Lee finally said, startling Kendall who just now realized she had been staring intently into his eyes. “I didn’t mean anything by it. From what I can tell, you don’t have a problem. It’s just, I don’t know… I’m predisposed to ‘getting hooked’ on stuff. So I try to be wary, is all.”
“Uh, I don’t really want to go into specifics…”
“Fair. Well, thanks for apologizing.”
“Do you accept?”
“Yes, obviously. Why would I thank you if I didn’t accept?”
“You can thank someone for an apology without accepting it. Like ‘thank you, but I can’t accept.’”
“That’s what people say when presented with a gift, I’ve never heard it used in response to an apology.”
“Hey, trust me on this. I’ve been on both sides of an apology so many times, countless times. I know every step of this complicated social dance.”
“You had me up until ‘I know,’ that’s when it started getting dubious.”
“So mean! Is this some complex where you desperately need to feel smarter than whoever you’re talking to?”
“Nah, that only flares up when my intellect is, you know, actually threatened.”
“If this is how you treat non-threats, I shudder to imagine what you do to actual threats.”
“As you should. But I don’t think you’ll ever have to worry about that.”
Lee checked his phone. “Well, as much fun as this barrage of insults has been, it’s high time I hit that lonesome road.”
“It’s not even 10.”
“I gotta get up early. Got jobs to hunt.”
“All right, fine. How are you getting home?”
Lee scanned the room. “Well, I did have a buddy with me, drove us here, said he would get me back… but looks like he’s gone. Must’ve thought I was going home with you.”
“All right, I won’t make you beg. I can give you a ride.”
“Is that such a good idea? You’ve been hitting the spirits pretty hard.”
“This is nothing, my tolerance is through the roof. If it makes you feel better, I can walk in a straight line or something.”
Lee shrugged. “No need. What have I got to lose, anyway? My life? Better than paying for a lyft.”
“I’ll drink to that,” she said, polishing off her whiskey, Lee wincing at the sight.
“So that’s your last one, right?”
“I think you’re confusing self-preservation for paternalism.”
“The line between the two blurs so easily.”
“Okay, I feel like we’re getting sucked into a whole new conversation, and while I would love to continue it, we should do so in the car. I really do have to go.”
“Whatever you say, Mr. Lee.”
His face twisted with displeasure. “Please don’t call me that. I’m gonna go to the bathroom before we go.”
“I’ll go and pull the car up front.”
“Cool. See you in a few.”
Lee rose from his seat and headed off. Kendall watched him go for a few seconds before rising herself, a bit unsteady. She regained her balance and regarded the barkeep, giving a curt nod and tight smile before sauntering for the door.
The night air rushed her like a boar, hooking its tusks under her ribs and freezing her to the core. She pulled her light windbreaker in close, trying in vain to insulate herself from the cold. The moon was in full bloom tonight, the milky eye of an old god, craters for cataracts. The black of night lightened to shades of dark blue at the horizon, draining into the sleeping sea. Kendall jogged over to her car and got in, turning it and the heat on. She then took a moment to absorb the warmth, rubbing her hands as if before a hearth.
She pulled up front and waited. And waited. An hour passed before she finally admitted to herself that he wasn’t coming. She did not know how he had escaped her; this was the only entrance and exit. Maybe he had climbed out a window. She laughed bitterly at the thought before peeling off, the mournful wail of her tires carrying far out over the waves, hurtling for what lay beyond the meeting of sky and sea.