By Tim Hawkins
We were having a nice meal, a few drinks and talking about the latest.
“You just like to have a nice meal and a few drinks and talk about the latest, don’t you?” Helen asked, somewhat rhetorically.
“Well,” I paused, not sure what answer was required. “Not, ‘just.’”
Things were finally coming to a head. I had known for a while.
It was evening, and it was hot in the city—late June or early July. I had chased her all over the country, from college to grad school, to our first real jobs, but here we were on the east coast with nowhere left to run.
We were long past the night I had driven six hours through a snowstorm to spend a ninety-minute layover with her at a distant airport.
And even longer past the time I had carried her on my back the two miles from the swimming hole, at the quarry, after she turned her ankle.
Recently, she had begun to chastise me about using her face towels to dry my hands.
I offered my arm as we left the restaurant. She brushed past. I suggested a walk, though I knew it would offer her the perfect opportunity to break things off. I just wanted one last evening with her before being relegated to the dustbin of ex-boyfriend anecdotes.
I could imagine what she might say: “He once carried me two miles on his back—and only dropped me once.”
Anyway, the hard words came that night, as expected, but I was surprised at my reaction—something akin to relief.
“Listen, I think we should just be friends,” she said. “I want to see other people.”
“Yes, I think that would probably be best,” I replied.
As we hugged on it, an elderly gentleman wearing a red bow tie stepped out of the shadows.
“You two are so young and beautiful and obviously very much in love,” he said. “You have some magic. I can feel it. Keep your love alive.”
“We actually just broke up,” I replied, not sure how ironic I wanted to sound. “Just a moment ago.”
It brings me pain even now to describe the look on the man’s face: disappointment, disillusionment, and devastation, all tied up with a ribbon of disgust.
“Sometimes we think all the golden days are ahead,” he said, finally. “We have no idea they may already be behind us.”
He gave one last longing look, shook his head, and walked off without another word.
“I think he is more upset than we are,” one of us muttered to hollow laughter from the other.
I walked her to her apartment near Dupont Circle, opened the green outside door with my key for the last time, and set out for a long walk across the Key Bridge to the house in Arlington that I shared with three strangers. On the way, I thought of stopping at The Fox and Hound for a few drinks, but I noticed it was crowded with people from work. One of them hailed me.
“Come in and have a drink,” he shouted. “Everybody is here.”
I made a decision then and there.
“Hey, Doug,” I said. “Will you tell McCallister I won’t be in Monday? I have some business.”
“Sure,” he said, a doubtful look crossing his face. Nobody ever missed work. “When will you be in?”
“Probably never,” I said, already heading toward the bridge that would take me out of town for the last time. I was tired of running, but I could walk all night if required, and this night it was required.
On the way out of the city, to my empty room, I thought only of her, and of our new lives apart. But throughout the years, I have gradually thought more of that old man. I’ve often wondered why he approached us at such a critical moment. I’ve wondered if there was something more he wanted to tell us.
I’m on my way to becoming an old man now, too. I live in another city now, and last night I was walking out of a small art-house movie theatre—one of the few left of its kind anymore. I was lost in that dreamlike feeling one has upon experiencing a great film and emerging into the warm spring night afterward.
Instead of hailing a cab, I felt like walking the twelve blocks to my apartment. The first intersection was crowded with pedestrians exiting the theatre and with patrons of the surrounding restaurants and bars, but after a few blocks the crowd thinned and dispersed.
After turning north off the main thoroughfare, I was quite alone—until a well-dressed, elderly man emerged from the shadows.
“How are the golden days treating you?” he asked, before making off with surprising haste.
I didn’t get a good look at his face or his tie. He might just have been another old codger commiserating with me about our imminent senescence, but I walked and walked last night, unable to clear a crazy thought from my mind.
This morning, I was so tired that I cancelled my Friday classes and then went back to sleep until noon.
When I awake, I notice I have a friend request on Facebook. It is from Helen—the first I have heard from her in thirty years. I close my eyes and inhale deeply, unsure about whether to accept. I’m getting ahead of myself, but I have gotten quite used to being alone. I have face towels of my own. There is no way I could carry her on my back for two miles, and I don’t see much point in driving six hours through a snowstorm.
I leave the request unanswered. I’ll have to think about it. I would, however, love to run into that old geezer, buy him a coffee, and pick his brain for a while.
I decide to take a walk and see if I run into him.