As I attempted to force my way into sleep I thought about Ali in the bar that evening, and how she’d stared at the ice cubes in her glass, which were making tiny twitches as the vodka melted them.
“This means something,” she said, almost inaudibly, as she saw me observing her. She made a side smile with her mouth.
“I’m sorry?” I said. Ali’s problems were her own and I could have left them that way, but I was heartsore. My chest ached with the pressure of the sadness that bore down on my ribs. I wanted to drink, and talk, and not think about the way each second, or gesture or even thought, was a second, gesture and thought further from where we’d been.
Ali shrugged. The side smile turned down into a frown. “It’s nothing.” She unbound her slippery long dark hair from the bun it was wound into, ran her fingers through it, shook worked-loose strands from her fingers, refixed her hair, sighed.
“Okay,” I looked away from her, not conversationally inspired. I examined the paper napkin the bargirl had put under my glass. It was a round frilly-edged slip. White with a green design embossed. I put my finger against the edge of it; felt the sharpness of the lasercut paper between my finger nail and the nail bed. I thought about places overseas and backlit bars where we’d sit on shiny stools whose seats span around. How once you’d been trying to get up onto one of those stools and your flipflop dropped from one foot and flicked across the room as the seat span unexpectedly beneath you. We both laughed as you hopped across the tiled floor, complaining about the sand cutting at you in between the toes of the still flipflopped foot. I should have picked up that shoe for you.
“It’s something we used to say,” Ali ignored her own long pause and continued a conversation that we’d been having in her head. “Like a lame joke. From Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where Phillip Seymour Hoffman keeps making mounds of clay or something and he says, all intense, ‘This means something’.” Ali drew out the e in ‘means’, pushing the word out, her eyes shining, looking inwards.
“Richard Dreyfuss,” I said. She noticed neither her mistake nor my correction.
“So it became something we said, just at random, to make each other laugh.” She laughed then by herself, a joyless ha ha, at I suppose some slideshow playing in her mind. This is no good for me, I thought, the two of us supposedly cheering one another up with a post-work drink, and instead taking solo trips inside our heads.
“Do you still talk to her?” I asked, thinking that if Ali wouldn’t (couldn’t) break into my little sadness nest then I’d try to find a way into hers and leave mine on its ledge waiting for my return.
She drank what was left in her glass. She looked up to catch the bargirl’s eye, made a flirtatious wink at the girl (which I think she didn’t even register that she’d done) and sighed a short puff from deep in her throat. “We did try, but it was so hard, you know?” The bargirl came over, Ali tapped her glass and pointed at mine. More drinks were served, we drank. I was finding it hard to ignore myself, a sinkhole was dropping within me.
Ali knew how to glide over these stutters in conversation. She continued, “I mean, the friends thing. We were never friends before we were lovers and then you’re supposed to try and switch tracks, just like that, when things end. You know like you were on the same train headed to happy ever after or some crap like that, then a switch is flipped, you’re on different tracks going different places. You want to be able to, you know, at least stay arms outstretched fingers touching but maybe it’s just better to wave and send each other postcards from where you end up. Just look forward to getting where you’re going and try to not to fuck everything up next time.”
Ali poked my hand then. I had been focussing on the freckles on the back of it. Tracing them one to another with a finger from my other hand, like a dot to dot. “Is that what you think I should do then? Get on a train to I’mOkayThanksForTheLols land?” I said, trying to sound light but I probably came over sour.
To her eternal credit Ali grabbed my wrists and held my arms over my head. Laughing dirtily she pumped them up and down saying, “Yes, fuck it! Choo choo! Next stop ThanksForTheLols land!”
“Fuck off!” I tried to take back my arms. I could see us in the eyes of the cute bargirl, ginger scruffy man in a crumpled cotton shirt with sweat patches under the arms, being manhandled by this wiry Japanese hippy girl in denim shorts and band tee shirt. Fucking ridiculous. I am what, 150 pounds, and she’s still stronger than me. She knew I was hating this. She pumped my arms up and down again. I jumped off my stool, a douchebag move. The sudden weight shift pitched Ali forward and she lost her grip.
“Well,” she said, getting back on her stool and gesturing for more drinks with a short movement of her hand. She turned away from me, biting the skin at the side of her index finger, her hand curled around her face. I felt pressure dropping inside my ears; the sinkhole began pulling down my guts. I blinked. I followed along the round edge of the bar with my thumb.
“I mean, ‘Lols’? Seriously.” Ali said, still not looking at me.
“Yeah? ‘Choo choo’? I’ll choo you,” I said, the sinkhole paused.
Ali turned and looked right at me. “That’s what she said,” she said.
I looked at my lovely friend with her eyebrow cocked and her mouth smiling on the other side. She stared back at me. The ‘that’s what she said’ lay like a dare between us. I didn’t take it: the laughter spouted up before I could. I gurgled it. It spewed out. Ali joined me and we shared it: real laughing. It hurt. I can feel it now across my stomach.
“I missed you,” I told Ali.
“Yeah,” Ali said. She put her hand on my arm and squeezed. I felt her fingers warm with life and blood through my sleeve. The button on my rolled up shirt cuff dug into my skin, maybe it even cut me. I welcomed the small pain. I knew that this tiny injury made this moment permanent. I’m always going to remember this, I thought to myself.
Our drinks arrived. We drank.
I wake up the next day swaddled in sweat and sheets that stick to me. Cold drool is dampening my right cheek because I’ve slept with my mouth open. My skin has linen folds creased into it where I’ve crushed my face against the pillow. I am profoundly uncomfortable and unlonely.