I arrived early and sat at the bar. After a brief deliberation I ordered a scotch. I ordered an expensive scotch, not sure why, though most likely to infuse my being with a sense of power. My watch showed twenty-one past seven. The girl I was seeing was set to arrive at eight. Blind date. I drank the scotch and watched the scenery around me. The bartender stood behind the bar off to the right, his back to me. Two stools down was a woman in a black silk dress. Her arms were bare, tattoos interlaced in a delicate design of flowers and symbols that made no more sense to me than hieroglyphics. She sipped casually on something pink served in a glass with a thin stem. As coy as I could be I removed my phone from my pocket and pulled up a picture of my date. I was fairly certain the woman two stools down was not my date but I couldn’t be sure. Otherwise I wouldn’t have checked my phone. The image of the girl I was seeing at eight was that of a pretty girl. Her smile promoted honesty, though her hair gave me the impression it was dyed. Near her scalp the hair was darker and gradually flowed around her shoulders in an auburn hue. The eyes that stared back at me were brown. I glanced at the woman two stools away and studied the contours of her small nose. I couldn’t be sure it wasn’t her.
The woman on the stool adjusted her bottom and her face became clearer. She was beautiful. The red lipstick she wore glowed amorously under the soft light in the bar. It was clear as day now – this woman was definitely not the girl in the picture on my phone. We made eye contact for a moment and she smiled and waved a finger for me to come sit beside her. I was dumbstruck, suddenly a bag of nerves. She waved me over again. I stood up, knocking my drink over in the process.
“Bartender. He’ll have another.” Her voice was raspy in a distinct way. Cultured.
I was mortified. Embarrassment swarmed. “Usually I’m not so clumsy.”
“It’s okay.” She said. “I think everyone has a tendency to be clumsy once in a while.” She was studying me intently. It was uncommon for a woman to examine me with her eyes the way she was, and especially so when it was a woman so stunningly beautiful.
“I suppose that’s true.” I said and sat beside her. I was cautious, a very real desire to not ruin something with my presence. I could smell her easily and was reminded of summer at the beach. She was a bouquet of the sweetest flowers come to life in human form.
“What’s your name?”
“No, your friend.” She laughed at her own joke. It settled my nerves. This woman incapacitated me entirely. Only moments ago I felt like a boy on his first day of school and was resettled like I was seeing a good friend.
“My name’s Reuben.”
“Why do you say that?”
“No reason, really. Just a curious name is all. I’ve been alive for twenty-six years and a hundred days – give or take – and don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone with your name.”
I thought about that. Had I ever met another Reuben? I’m not sure. Were there any famous Reuben’s in the world? “Certainly my name can’t be that rare?”
The bartender set a new drink in front of me and moved on to the mess I made. He said nothing to either of us and went about his duty with a crack of a smile on his lips.
“Your name isn’t rare like we think.”
“Pandas are rare. But I’ve seen Pandas in China and Taipei. But I’ve never met you, Reuben.”
“Well, you have now.”
“Yeah.” She sipped her drink and titled her chin up toward the ceiling. I looked at her tattoos. They looked highly crafted as if serious thought had gone into their coming to be. The symbols though, still I couldn’t make them out. They might have been Arabic or some North African or Middle East language I had no familiarity with. She noticed me looking at her arms and rotated her wrist to expose the pale flesh on the inside of her forearms. Her limbs were the most tempting things I’d ever seen. I wanted to brush my cheeks across her flesh, glide my lips along the contours of the tattoo flowers drawn there.
She interrupted my daydream with a question. “Can you read Hebrew?”
“No.” It then occurred to me the writing on her arms was Hebrew. Obvious now. I took a sip of my drink and watched her as she pondered her next words. I needed the drink desperately. The presence of this woman was enough to parch me like a day lost in the Sahara.
She pressed her tongue between her lips and pinched it with the tips of her thumb and index finger on her right hand. “Can I tell you something I’ve never told anyone?”
I finished my drink off. I was hot under the collar of my shirt and the hairs on my neck were activated, spiking upward like living antennas. “Yeah. Sure. Please do.”
The bartender drifted from out of nowhere and set fresh drinks in front of us. The same crack of smile rested on his face, and as he came he left, floating away silently.
She set her palms flat on the bar top and spread her fingers. “You have to make a promise to me first. Can you promise?”
“I need to know what I’m promising. I’ve made promises in the past that blew up in my face because they just weren’t possible to keep.”
“Promise me you’ll believe me. Promise that if I tell you something crazy that no matter what, you’ll believe me. I need you to promise.”
I wasn’t sure where she was going with any of this. I had a strange sense though, like my body was somewhere else and I was watching something outside of me take place. I knew that I had already broken this promise and now the event had to occur in order for it to exist. “I promise, I guess.”
“You guess or you promise?” She turned to face me completely. In an instant my stomach dropped. I was not fully prepared for the rush of energy that flowed through me when she placed all her attention directly onto me. This woman was the most outstanding thing I’d ever been near. I’ve seen the Grand Canyon and stood under rushing waterfalls – I’ve bungee jumped and placed my hand on a sleeping tiger’s tongue – but nothing came close to this woman’s aura. My knees clacked together.
“I promise.” I gulped air like I had just come up from a full minute under water.
She pointed to a word on her arm, tattooed in black ink as dark as night. “This is your name.” She rotated her arm and touched another word in Hebrew. “This is the name of this bar.” She brushed her elbow against me. As absurd as what she was saying sounded I held on to every word, dying to hear her speak more. “This here is today’s date.”
I was about to tell her I didn’t understand when she set her hand on mine and I felt the unbelievable coolness of her skin on my own.
“Now listen,” She said. “I didn’t have these tattoos before this day last year. I woke up one morning and they were there. I’ve never been to a tattoo parlor. I never even thought about getting any tattoos. I know it’s a cool thing to do now but it never crossed my mind for me to get a tattoo.” I took this in and was struck with a sudden inclination to touch her arms, to trace the tattoos with my fingers. And knowing so, she said, “Go ahead. You can touch them.”
I traced the lines on her flesh and in my mind became Picasso as he lined the strokes on his canvases, a sense like God creating the stars. My fingers on her arms was the most intimate rapture I’ve ever experienced. I thought my life would end as soon as I removed my touch from her skin. That stirring passed as the fear was swallowed in ecstasy.
“Do you believe me?” She asked.
“I believe you. But what does it mean? I don’t understand.”
“When these tattoos first showed up I was really frightened. I thought maybe they were a sign from the devil or something.” She laughed a little, her face alight with a boundless beauty. “I know how ridiculous that sounds, but how would you react if you woke up one morning with tattoos covering your arms and words here and there in language you don’t speak?”
I wasn’t sure how I would feel, and my name nonetheless, the bar, the date. The vastness of the universe and my micro roll in all the happenings seemed to come undone, and for a time, there on the stool, I could see further into the past and the future than I ever thought possible.
“I know what you’re thinking. How could it be that your name, the name of this bar and today’s date, all of those things lined up like data in a table?” She paused. “I came here tonight because I knew you’d be here. I don’t know how or why but I knew. And here you are.” She believed the words she spoke.
I believed her.
The bartender removed the empty glass and slid a fresh drink across the bar toward me. I picked it up and drank it down before he could slip away. I nodded for another. The woman, name unknown, placed her soft hand on mine and looked into my eyes. “I’m going to use the little ladies room. Please don’t leave.”
“There’s nothing that could make me leave this stool.”
She smiled and squeezed gently onto my hand. With grace she drifted to the back of the bar and to the restrooms. I sat there on the stool and sipped my drink, glancing occasionally at the stool I was sitting on earlier, wondering at what happened to him, that me who stayed on that stool in some different dimension, a wholly abstract reality from the one I was now experiencing. Did that woman exist there? What about the girl I was supposed to see at eight, did she blink out of existence when I moved stools?
I sipped my drink and looked at the single ice cube on the bottom of the glass. I clinked it once, and then again. I jiggled the ice cube into my mouth and crushed it with my teeth, the sensation of the cold sent rings of awareness through my jaw and into my neck. I waved down the bartender and ordered another drink. He took the old glass, wiped the counter of the condensation and placed the new drink in front of me. My phone beeped in my pocket. I pulled it out and saw a message from the girl I was supposed to meet: she apologized, said something came up and she wouldn’t be able to make it. I put the phone back in my pocket with a wide, uncontrollable grin on my face. The bartender saw me and beamed a smile my way, nodded an imaginary cap to me. Life seemed so ripe with possibilities and it gave me hope that there was always a light at the end of any tunnel. How could a tunnel come to be if there was never a beginning or an end? And in that moment as I waited for the woman to return, the woman with my name blazoned into her flesh, the woman who sought me out, a dream – a vision, come to be in this reality placed upon each of us and somehow shared – I set my attention on the back corner of the bar and the hall that led to the restrooms. As I sat waiting patiently for her to return the hallway began to glow. First a simmering warmth, radiating outward a pure light force. My eyes began to water. As the brightness consumed me, I stared unceasing until I was overtaken.
Months passed as we spent every possible moment together. How could we not? My name was in her skin. And through all this I was paralyzed with an agonizing dread of life without her. She became everything. As she lay beside me in bed I gently touched the air vibrating on her flesh. I feared making contact while she slept, for what if she ceased to be? She could evaporate before my eyes and leave me with nothing but a memory. I’ve often heard it’s a good, decent thing to have memories – but I only wanted her in the here and now. I refused to comprehend a future without her. I sat up nights after she fell asleep, watching her breath in and out, silent, and prayed to God that if anything ever happened to her to please take me at the same time. If she were to die in a plane crash on the way to visit her parents then God willing I would be shot dead in the street outside our apartment at the same exact moment. If she were to get news of breast or ovarian cancer then I wanted to be informed at the same appointment by our shared doctor that I would be gone within the hour from some unstoppable form of rectal cancer or whatever cancer, devouring my cells. I don’t mind bad news, but not about her.
I noticed the tattoos on her arms began to fade. At first I wasn’t sure if it was only my eyes playing a trick on me. As time passed I was certain that the ink was dulling. When I first met her, after the initial shock of being run through so completely by Cupid’s arrow I spent as much time studying and memorizing the tattoos as I did holding her hands, getting lost in her eyes, divining my soul in her splendid smell. Quickly I became paranoid that my dependence, my stinging need was sucking her from the world through the ink on her arms. I focused on a change of approach and spent my nights of usual terror, in its place smiling at her as she slept beside me. Sleep still eluded me, and like a first time meditator I found it not only difficult to abstract my thoughts away from my fears and insecurities, it became impossible to think of anything else other than losing her.
She had given me no reason whatsoever to think that she didn’t adore me fully. She came home at the exact moment she said she would every night. When she was able she cooked delicious meals and surprised me with little gifts she somehow knew I would love. She groomed herself immaculately and looked flawless at all times, morning to night. In the only act of aggression I ever witnessed from her she threw a drink in a random guy’s face at a bar after he spoke ill of me in an attempt to take her for himself. I did nothing, stood dumb and rooted to the ground, as she became Wonder Woman. Other women often tell me how lucky I am to have such a spectacular love in my life.
Though it was all unraveling inside me. I don’t know if she ever understood the way my body and mind were falling apart in the wake of her splendor. I never asked. I knew that I was inside a narrowing tunnel and thousands or millions of miles in front of me the light, now only a pinhole with her on the other side was collapsing. An odd sensation. Love so powerful and true and in the end knowing it illuminated upon the wrong soul.
“Is everything okay?” She asked.
We sat at the kitchen table, coffee mugs steaming. She was delicately eating a muffin, taking pieces off with her perfect fingers and placing them gently on her tongue. Her tattoos had disappeared completely. Neither of us ever spoke of it. For all I knew they could have still been there and something had happened to me internally that changed the way I saw her and it was only me who couldn’t see them.
“I’m okay.” I said. For the last month or so I’d been lying to her. Not evil or malicious lies, but little radar blips sent out in protest of my lingering anxiety. I was far from all right and sliding further by the moment. I had no idea how to tell her I had fallen out of love with her. And I’m not sure if that description fits – rather I was so in love with her and so guilt ridden in drawing her away from whatever lay in wait for something as incredible as she, that it was killing me from the inside out.
“I don’t believe you. Tell me what’s wrong. Have I done something?”
I felt a shudder inside my very soul, a complete collapse of my internal bell tower. “You never do anything wrong.” I said. “You’re absolutely perfect.”
“Then what is it? I can tell something is bothering you.”
I looked into her eyes and felt the ground under my feet shift, as if an earthquake were performing its seismic duties directly to me. Tears burned in my skull and I held them back with all the strength I possessed. It was little use as I began to cry in front of her for the first time. If I had known it would also be the last I would have tried harder. “I don’t know. I’m afraid of losing you and it’s driving me mad.”
“Why would you say that?”
“Can’t you feel it? I’m not good enough for you.”
“You’re perfect just the way you are. That’s why I love you.” Her eyes pierced into me with a sincerity that could wipe out the plague. They glistened with tears of their own as her hand reached across the table and took mine.
I sobbed into my chest and wiped a stream of snot from my nose. “It’s not enough,” I said. “I’m not enough.” I pulled my hand free from hers, a clot in my throat so thick I felt I might turn purple and fall flat to the floor. As I yanked my hand free I saw the traces of her tattoos, clear as day. My name there in Hebrew, and an odd occurrence struck me that she probably was Jewish and it was never my name written there on her arm at all.
My scotch tipped over on the bar. The woman with the tattoos stood up from her stool and walked past me. She was stunning, her lips a red like the inside of a pristine rose. She paid no mind to the fool with over-priced scotch spilling into his lap. An immaculately groomed man embraced her – a man I admit was quite handsome. He wore a pristine suit of some rare gray material. They fit together like a two-piece puzzle.
The beautiful woman with the tattoos and her man walked into the dining area and were lost from sight. It’s possible she looked back at me for the most infinitesimal space of time, and in that moment I felt my heart collapse and I might have died only to be reincarnated into my own body at the same second in this reality.
I asked the bartender for a pile of napkins and wiped up the mess. The bartender didn’t offer to replace the drink but asked if I wanted another. I checked my phone to see if my date had messaged. Nothing, which most likely meant she was still coming. I had thirty-five minutes to kill. I sipped a well gin and tonic and watched the news with the sound off. The news is boring and especially so when you can’t hear a word they’re saying. My eyes drifted down from the TV screen and I saw the bartender was looking at me with a peculiar expression, a slight grin. He doffed an invisible cap my way and then turned to the stereo and pressed a button. A love song I hate started playing.