When she finished washing another basin of glasses, Sydel glanced up at the clock mounted above her on the wall. “Half hour to closing,” she thought to herself as she deciphered the time amidst the neon ring that encircled the face of the clock. As her eyes made their way back down to her work, she paused when she caught a glimpse of herself in the small mirror that hung on the wall, nestled between the bottles of vodka. She stepped in closer to inspect herself. Her short dark brown hair was the same as when she left her house – a light colored bandana held most of it away from her face, and a few pieces fell over her forehead and touched the soft line of her brow. This part of the inspection, however, was only a prelude to the real reason she paused by the mirror. For that, she moved even closer to it and turned her head gently to the right. There, under the neon purple glow of the clock above, was the outline of the bruise around her cheek and temple she so carefully concealed with makeup before she came in.
Six days had passed since he left her with that bruise. “Presents,” he would call them – undoubtedly because he viewed them as such. Each one was a present to himself, reminding him of a time he ‘won’ an argument or simply ‘made his point’. But this ‘present’ would be his parting gift. After six years of fights she could never win and nights without sleep from blinding pain, she decided that she could endure no more, and saw to his arrest. She spent the first two days after his incarceration alone and in bed, hoping her homemade Mind Erasers would kill both the pain in her face and the memories of him. When she realized the drinks did more harm than good by the third day, she came into work, and did so every day since. No one at work asked her where she had been on the nights before or about the bruise on her face she made a futile attempt to hide. Perhaps they didn’t notice. Perhaps they knew the answers already. Or maybe they just didn’t care. It didn’t matter. Tonight, she was pleased the bruise had healed up considerably, and that her face – much like her life – was regaining the semblance of normalcy.
The Thursday night crowd started to dissipate a few hours ago. At this hour, the only patrons remaining were a mix of regulars. Some closed their tabs a while ago but still lingered, dreading whatever it was that awaited them at home. Others, who didn’t know when to say when, sat in their places drinking water hoping to sober up enough to make it home on foot or by taxi. So it surprised Sydel all the more when the side door opened and an unfamiliar face walked in.
He was tall and lean of build, with a darker complexion and thick black hair that was flattened against his head – a byproduct of walking in the rain without an umbrella. His trench coat was sopping wet, causing a small puddle to take form by his feet whenever he stood still for more than a few seconds. He scanned the room around him briefly before making his way to the bar and seating himself on a cushioned bar stool. A gaunt expression had been fixed to his face from the moment he walked in, and the sullen eyes that sat behind his glasses spoke of a great sadness his mouth was reluctant to share. But there was a kindness to his face that was almost palpable to Sydel. So much so that she resisted the urge to remind him it was nearly closing time when he asked her for single malt scotch neat.
He dispatched the first glass quickly and gestured with his hand at Sydel for another. She lingered near him a bit longer than she had when she brought him the first glass – curiosity surely was to blame. She did this by wiping the bar down from the end closest to him. Her eyes swept over the lines of his face and frame. His gray coat seemed to dry quickly, revealing some smudges and stains the rain had done a splendid job of covering up. She proceeded to get closer to him as she worked the rag over the wooden bar, feeling the damp remnants of spilled spirits and ales on her skin as the rag sucked them up hungrily. He held the whiskey glass delicately in place against the bar with the thumb and middle finger of his right hand, just as he had the first glass. But Sydel’s new vantage point and the time that had passed since this stranger came in from the rain afforded her a view of his left hand that brought her cleanup of the bar to an abrupt halt.
His left hand rested in his lap awkwardly. The full weight of it did not press into his thighs – he held it up intentionally and carefully. The pale yellow light of the fixture that hung above him revealed the sparkle of small shards of glass that pierced his skin randomly from knuckles to wrist. Thin rivulets of blood streamed down from the shards, soaking into the dark fabric of his pants. A faded gold wedding band sat loosely on his ring finger, marred by some sizable dents in the metal. The sight of his hand made her heart hurt as a deluge of memories and experiences rushed through her mind. Sydel was no stranger to the sight of broken glass or bleeding skin – quite the opposite, as a matter of fact.
“Amazing, isn’t it?” The sound of the man’s voice ripped her from her thoughts into the realization that her closer examination of his hand had not gone unnoticed. He was looking right at her, peering into her eyes calmly. A faint smile had appeared on his face.
“Not really,” she blurted as she resumed cleaning the bar, hoping her stare from before had not exposed too much of the fascination she had for his left hand. “Then again, I’m not sure I know what you’re talking about, and I’ve got to close out, so-”
“It’s amazing how so many of us are…broken things.”
It was then that Sydel realized the man had taken note of what was left of the bruise on her face. While her instinct told her to turn away from him, a strange sense of relief washed over her, compelling her to stand her ground. For the first time since she returned to work, someone had acknowledged her and her pain. And in that acknowledgment, she found a freedom she had not experienced before. She put the sodden rag down on the bar beside her and walked over to stand face to face with the stranger. “So what of it? Broken is just another way of saying hopeless.”
“On the contrary…hope is the one thing that our futures are full of,” he said as he swallowed the last sip of his scotch. He reached into a pocket of his coat with his right hand and pulled out his wallet to pay her. He fumbled the wallet with his good hand as he tried to take out the cash. Seeing him struggle, Sydel reached over the bar, took the wallet from him and pulled out enough money to cover the drinks and a modest tip for her. She waited for him to nod his approval at the amount she withdrew before folding the wallet up and returning it to him.
“What makes you so sure about the hope?” she asked as he rose slowly from his seat.
He paused for a moment and glanced at his wounded hand, then leaned in close as if to whisper a secret in her ear. “Only broken things can be healed,” he said, “and healing requires hope.” His eyes referenced the fading bruise on her face once more. “It would seem you’re quite aware of this already, yes?”
Sydel noticed the smile on the stranger’s face had widened when he leaned away from her. Another moment passed before she noticed something else quite unexpected. For the first time in a long while, she smiled from the inside out. She did not know how or why – something in the man’s words had unearthed an emotion long since buried within her. While savoring that feeling, she almost failed to notice that he had made his way to the side door to leave. She pulled her thoughts back into the present situation fast enough to call out to him, “Wait…your hand-”
“Richard,” the man said. “My name…is Richard.”
The door closed behind him with hardly a sound.
Sydel looked at the empty bar stool before her and smiled once more. Two empty whiskey glasses sat on the bar, right where Richard had left them. She reached over and gathered them together with her hands to take them to the sink. The glasses clinked. “That’s a new one,” she thought. “The soft and subtle clink of hope.”