Jan 13, 2008
“So he left you for his secretary? That’s almost cliché, isn’t it?
“Yeah”, she answers back and laughs ironically, but in her eyes I can see there is little humour.
The bar is oddly quiet for a popular location on a busy street in the business district of Toronto. It is a nice place, just a little upscale, where I like to come often enough after work. I like to read the evening editions which are always neatly laid out along the highly polished brass and wood bar. As I thumb through the late stories, I check the market closings on my Blackberry and usually fire off some emails to my team to make sure they are on top of the latest prices. I work in investment so I need to be ready for the openings in New York and Toronto for tomorrow.
On a normal night, I will sit on my own at the end of the bar with a Manhattan or two as the evening crowd swirls anonymously around me. Maurizio, the bartender, calls me by name and usually stops on the other side of the bar for a chat as I run through my ritual. He jokes, ‘So how did we do today, Paul?’ I laugh in response and say something like ‘Today we made millions’ or ‘Today we went bust’ and we’ll laugh together at the shared triviality.
Tonight was different from the start. As I stepped into the comforting darkness with the chill winter wind still clinging to my back, I noticed the bar was almost empty which is unusual once the computers start shutting down, and people begin to escape from their cubicles. In the background I could hear the music playing; a jazzy number with some nice, tinkling piano bits – maybe Oscar Peterson. Alone at the centre of the bar I noticed an attractive woman and assumed she would be waiting for some colleagues to join her. I went to collect the paper near to her and nodded to Maurizio for my usual. I could sense that she was looking at me. I turned and smiled benignly at her and thought I saw a thin smile fly across her expression but I wasn’t sure. ‘Busy day,’ I said; not a question, just a statement. I’m careful to try not to draw people into conversation. Instead she answered and volunteered a clever comment on the market downswing. The rest developed from there.
“So yours ran off with her boss?” she asks. She is lazily stirring her whiskey-sour. The candle-light in the booth were we are seated reflects off her dark eyes as she looks up at me.
“Yeah,” I answer, not really wanting to talk about it much.
“That’s cliche, too,” she observes accurately.
I study her casually in the soft light. She is definitely a good looking woman. She is maybe about 35 years old, a few years younger than I. Her hair is dark and longish and tied back in a loose tail, although she probably keeps it pinned up during the day. Her eyes are also dark and their form suggests perhaps a Mediterranean origin. Two diamond earrings sparkle in the glow of the candle. Her face is narrow with a high forehead and is just beginning to suggest the effects of age and worry. There are thin lines at the corners of her eyes and mouth but these do not detract from her striking good looks. She is wearing a finely tailored business suit of similar quality to my own and I can see from the cut of it that she has a narrow build and small bust.
“I’ve felt hollow since it happened,” she offers, attempting to be casual.
Her choice of words strikes a chord in me as though she has just named a thing which was previously nameless, formless and unidentified. Hollow. A verse from Eliot springs to mind: We are the hollow men, we are the stuffed men…Our dried voices, when we whisper together, are soft and meaningless. Is this what I have been feeling for so long now? The word reverberates in my mind as I distract myself by taking a sip of my drink. Hollow. Our eyes meet across the table and I perceive that I possess in my eyes the same darkness as I can see in hers. There is a sense of inward pain and emptiness. The emptiness that is caused by the loss of someone that seemed to be a part of you. When that someone leaves, then a space is left as though your insides have been carved out like the trunk of an old tree. It is not just a internal feeling but a sense that emanates outwards as well, a sort of negative energy, that others can sense and smell on you. They see it in your eyes and hear it in your voice. It is the hollowness of a skin stretched tightly over the frame of a drum. The years have passed and still my skin is stretched tightly over my frame, concealing the hollowness within and yet, with each beat of my heart, the feeling escapes me and is perceived by those around me. I return from my reverie and notice that the ends of her fingers rest lightly over mine on the table.
“I was wondering where you’d gone,” she says softly and there is no accusation in her voice. She smiles but it does not touch her eyes. I notice her eyes tear up and she blinks it away quickly.
As the evening progresses, and the empty glasses are cleared away by the sympathetic waiter, I realise where the night is going to finish. This is not a dramatic conclusion, only the realisation of something that was probably implicit long before. We are adults and we are alone. We are lonely, and some force of circumstance has brought us together on this particular night. We are hollow.
“It’s getting late”, I say, more to myself than to her.
Tonight we will feel hollow together. We step out of the bar into the quiet street and the desolate mid-winter night closes around us.