Illustration by Andres Garzon
“Why is everything so fucking dark lately? What happened to happily ever after?” Alice asked. The glow of the flame lit up her face as the tobacco hissed and caught. The smoke crept from the side of her mouth in a wavy line.
“What do you mean? Are you telling me you’re not happy?” Jay reached for her hand, stroking the long fingers that ended abruptly in chipped black polish.
“No, it isn’t that. Why does everything have to be so apocalyptic? Zombies, nuclear fallout, the end of the world. Sometimes I feel as though there isn’t anything positive left.” She looked around at the people on the patio, their animated chatter filled the air with an emptiness that made her skin crawl. Her gaze fell upon Jay and she caught the flush that played across his cheeks and down his neck towards his button up shirt that was crisp, without a wrinkle.
“Oh, I see, you’re talking about popular culture: movies, books, that sort of thing. Well…what about the movie we saw last week? Everyone seemed happy at the end of that one.”
“Rom-coms,” Alice snorted with a billow of smoke coming out of her nose, “Those aren’t real. Nothing ever works out like that.” She flicked the remains of her cigarette over the edge of the patio at a somber man in an uncomfortable suit on his way home from the office.
“And zombies are?”
“I guess you have me there.” Alice took a sip of beer and drummed her fingers on the edge of the table. “I grew up with all those fairy tales, you know? I was set up for things working out. It’s like when you’re a kid, your parents tell you that everything will be fine in the end, and then they throw you out into the real world and it’s just the opposite.” She reached for the cigarette pack and Jay pulled it away from her.
“You’re smoking too much lately. I think you should quit.”
“Really?” she said, raising an eyebrow. “Sure, I can quit. No problem.” She drew her hands back and twisted the thin paper napkin into a spiral.
“Your life’s not that bad, is it?” Jay signaled for the waitress to bring over another round. “I mean look at you, you’re beautiful. You have a great place, a steady job…that ring on your finger. How could that be bad?”
“Those are material things. I’m not sure you can use material things to define happiness. It doesn’t work that way.”
“Of course, you can. Don’t you see? Those material things mean so much more. Your beauty comes from confidence. Your apartment…that represents safety and comfort. Your workplace is your security. And the ring…that represents love, the rest of our lives together.”
“No. I guess it’s not that bad.” She placed her hand on the fork and flipped it back and forth. “And you? Are you happy?”
“Of course I am.” He leaned back into his chair. “How could I not be?”
“But you’re in med school. I don’t think I could be happy if I was a doctor.”
“I’ll help people. I’ll improve their lives. That makes me happy. Simple. Not to mention, all the money that I’ll make, for us.” He nodded at the waitress as she put two more bottles down on the table.
“But will you really help them?” Alice bit her lip in a way that made her face change. “You’ll lie to them, tell them that everything’s going to be okay. Fix them up for a year or two, before they die anyway.”
He smothered a laugh. “Before they die anyway? That’s pretty cynical. What’s gotten into you?”
“Sometimes I wonder what the point is –why we even bother.”
“Are you talking about the secret to life? Why we exist?”
“Maybe. Oh, I don’t know.” She raised the bottle to her lips and emptied half of it: the liquid fell forward in quiet gulps. “We have drinks. We talk. We go home. I get up for work, you go to school and then we do it all over again. Is that really living? Shouldn’t there be something more?”
“What do you suggest?”
“A purpose. Something to strive towards.”
“What about the wedding –isn’t that a purpose? Something to look forward to?”
“I suppose. But what then? What’s the purpose after that?” Alice pulled at the diamond around her finger, staring at the reflection of light it threw onto the green glass of the bottle. The sun, far off in the distance, fell in an angry red mess over the skyline.
“To live happily ever after,” Jay said triumphantly. He raised his drink in an exaggerated toast.
“Very funny,” she said. Her mouth curved into a reluctant smile. “Do you really think we can be happy?”
“Of course. We are happy. It’s not that difficult.”
“But I think it is. Marriage is hard, you have to work at it. What if I sleep with someone else? Will you still be happy then?”
Jay’s eyebrows lifted. “That depends. On the situation I mean. Maybe you got really drunk and didn’t know what you were doing. I think I could probably forgive that. Yes, I think I could.”
“But if I told you I’ve slept with someone else; wouldn’t that make you furious? I wouldn’t be able to forgive you if you did something like that.”
“Even if it was a mistake? If I didn’t know what I was doing? I think if you loved me enough, you could forgive me. When you’re serious about being together, you work things out.” Alice looked at him and then looked away. She thought about the text. She wished she had never seen it, but now it was too late. The light all around them was fading into dusk. The waitress placed a flickering candle in the middle of the table.
“Are you ready to order?” She stood there expectantly.
“No, I think I’m okay for now,” Alice said. Her nails tapped against the bottle.
“Well I’m starving,” Jay announced. He squinted as he tipped the glossy menu towards the dull reflection of the candle. “I’ll have the sirloin, rare, and fries…no, skip the fries. I’ll have a salad, ranch dressing on the side. I’m watching my waistline.” He winked at the waitress who smiled as he handed her the menu.
“Watching your waistline? You sound like a 1950’s sitcom dad.” Alice’s hand crept towards the pack of cigarettes he had pushed to the edge of the table.
“I’m fine.” Her fingers gripped the chair as she rocked back and forth. “What am I supposed to do now? Watch you eat dinner?”
“You’re the one that wanted to go out. Why don’t you get another drink or something?”
“Sure.” Alice stood up and walked over to the bar at the edge of the patio covered with little lights that looked like chili peppers. She squeezed in between two men on stools and put her hands down flat against the rough wood of the bar top.
“Can I get you a drink?” the man on her left asked. She noticed that his patterned tie was slightly askew.
“I’m getting my own drink,” she said. “That’s why I came up to the bar.”
“She’s married anyway,” the other man said, eyeing her ring, “or as good as anyway.”
“Since when does that matter?” Alice stared at him until he finally looked away. “I’ll have four shots of tequila,” she told the bartender, who poured them out and put them on a little silver tray. The men watched as she walked back over to the table, carefully balancing the drinks.
“I hope two of those are for me,” Jay said.
Alice looked at him and threw her head back, draining the shots one by one down her tilted throat.
“Lemon?” he asked. His forehead lifted and made a dividing line.
“Thanks,” she said. Her eyes watered as she sucked on the pale-yellow wedge. The waitress put the steak down and turned to Alice.
“Can I get you an extra plate?”
“No, thanks. I’m vegetarian.”
“Since when?” Jay asked, chewing on a mouthful of pink meat.
“I thought I’d give it a try,” she said, as the waitress considered them and walked away. The tables were starting to thin now and the mosquitoes were out. Alice slapped at her arm and reached into her bag to pull on a sweater.
Jay’s face danced in the shadow of the flame. “Really? This is a bit much, even for you.”
She looked down at the table and contemplated the empty shot glasses. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“It’s just that every morning when I open the front door, I see the mountain.” Alice shivered and pulled the sweater tighter around her shoulders.
“Yes, you know, the mountain. The one across from my apartment.”
“I’d call it more of a hill.”
“I look at it and it’s always the same…I mean it’s not always exactly the same. In the winter it’s covered in snow, in the summer it’s got patches of green, but when it comes down to it, it’s just a big piece of rock looking back at me every morning and it never changes. It’s always there. And sure, it’s nice to know what to expect, but sometimes when I open the door, I pray that it won’t be there anymore. I think about what I would do if it wasn’t there one day.”
“Are you calling me a piece of rock?”
“I knew you wouldn’t understand.”
“No, I understand perfectly. I think you need to climb the mountain. It’s a symbol of overcoming your obstacles.”
She glared at him under thick bangs. “If I climb it, I have to connect, become a part of it, and right now I want nothing to do with it. Can’t you even try to imagine what that’s like for me?”
“What that’s like for you? Huh.”
Jay closed his eyes and she watched his shoulders lift up and down in time to his breath. She could almost hear him count to ten before his eyes opened again, black and empty.
“Do you know what? I think I’m done,” he said. He pushed his plate into the middle of the table.
“I thought you were starving.”
“Not anymore.” He stood up and threw a couple of twenties down on the table.
Alice thought about the mountain again and pulled a cigarette out of the almost empty pack. The flame from the candle caught her eye, causing the white part to glow a dull shade of orange. “I told you there’s no happily ever after,” she muttered to no one in particular as she watched his silhouette lurch off into the night. She smiled. Maybe tomorrow the view would be different.
ALLISON HALL is a teacher-librarian and writer from Ontario. Her short stories have been published in Cleaver Magazine and The Mulberry Fork Review.
Copyright © 2019 by Allison Hall. All rights reserved.