He took a deep breath as he opened the door to the bar trying to prepare for the onslaught of thick smoke and memories that hung in the air. Some things never changed and at this late hour, the owners disregard for the “smoke free” law was refreshing. No one looked when he entered. No matter how many years passed between visits, he still recognized many of the patrons who frequented the dive. At this time of night, if anyone recognized him, they wouldn’t approach, which was good because what he craved tonight could not be found in the casual company of others. On a normal busy night he would be social to those who had known him the longest, it had its appeal, being with others who had territorial rights to shared memories, not knowing or understanding who he had become.
The bartender never forgot a face and silently placed his favorite beer in front of him. Needing a smoke, he reached for the new pack of cigarettes from his worn black jacket. Lost in thought, he flipped the smooth pack end over end until he caught his reflection in the mirror behind the bar. Shit, how many years had he been walking this road. Over the years he had given up the battle with conventional living and had embraced his nomadic lifestyle. Sure there had been dead ends and those who only wanted to walk down memory lane, but he knew all the back roads of life had led him to a reality few new existed.
He had drained his first beer and was working on his second, trying to process the last few days. He couldn’t really remember at what point he had decided to make the trip home, just that he had gotten into his car with his backpack, camera and cash. Something in him was unsettled and like a bird feeling its magnetic pull toward home, he was unable to resist the natural migratory instinct to return.
As he arrived, the town slept. Unable to resist, he had slowly driven to his childhood home. Expecting darkness, he was surprised to see the lights were on in the front living room. It was strange to think of someone else living in his old house. Too much for his Dad to keep up, he had sold it a few years before. He wondered who they were and if their kids had made a fort under the stairs as he once had or if the furnace still creaked on cold mornings. He hadn’t realized he had parked the car across the street and turned it off. Habit, he had done it a thousand times as a teenager. Maybe this was why he had returned, one last goodbye. One picture wouldn’t hurt, no one was around. As he focused his lens, he realized a person was sitting in the front room. She must have been about his age, she had a curious look on her face, like she was trying to figure something out. He took the picture, of her, and left.
He marveled at how he could return home and be somewhat of a local inspiration. People remembered what they wanted and as time passed forgot the rest. They liked that he had gotten out, he had a life, had seen places they never considered; they saw their version of his life, not always the reality. Would they feel the same if they knew about the broken dreams, false starts, failed relationships, what he had done to survive? If he had lived under their noses all of these years, he would be nothing but a failure to them, but blowing in with the changing seasons, he was an enigma.
He had slept a few hours and then found himself at the local coffee shop sometime after the morning rush. He loved this place with its uneven wooden floors and mismatched furniture. He had an easy relationship with the owners and they looked forward to his visits enjoying the hours he spent hanging out and the business that followed in after him. This morning was no different than most, reviewing what his camera had captured from his trip like others would catch up on the local news. He knew that for about every 100 pictures there would be less than 5 he would connect with. Today was no different reviewing pictures of local landscapes, kids being kids, looming clouds. He had forgotten about the last picture he had taken until it appeared on his screen. He had been tired enough when he took it that it took a second for him to figure out who this woman was. As soon as he saw the dent in the wall above her chair, he knew it was his old house. At first he was drawn to the specifics of the room, what had been changed and what was still the same. Soon enough he focused on her. She was alone, comfortably dressed, attractive in a natural kind of way. She sat cross legged with her computer on her lap, reading glasses on her head, surrounded by yellow legal pads and pictures. But what intrigued him the most was the tears rolling down her face, she was consumed. He knew that feeling and instantly, he knew her. He had been lost to the moment and only when the door unexpectedly slammed shut did he look up from his work, only to meet her gaze, staring at him from across the room. He would replay the moment from the coffee shop over and over in his mind, and every time he would come to the same conclusion, there was a lifetime of understanding in a 3 second glance. She got her coffee and then she was gone.
He had been lost to the next few days. He was lost to a picture, this woman and her tears, and a 3 second glance. He returned most nights, watching while she worked. It was so strange that she was in a house he knew every inch of and yet he could no longer walk through the door. This house kept his secrets and now kept hers. She rarely slept, often paced the floor and repeatedly looked at a picture she carried in the pocket of an old cardigan sweater.
He felt the sudden rush of air on the back of his neck as he was finishing his beer. No doubt some other lost soul looking for solace at the bottom of a bottle. He spun his leather bracelet on his wrist, briefly remembering he had made it out of a belt that his step father used to beat him with. Jesus, this trip was a mistake. He noticed the bartender approaching with another beer and a shot glass. The beer he placed in front of him and the shot to his right. After a long pull on the new bottle, he looked to see who had turned up on this late night, and there she sat, waiting for her glass to be filled with a second shot of tequila because she had immediately downed the first.
Silently, she reached into her pocket and pulled out a small black book and slid it toward him. She let him stare into her eyes, never once looking away. It was more powerful than any physical embrace, truly touched without lifting a hand. He finally looked away and opened the book to find a yellowed picture and pages filled with, he guessed, her writing.
He had never seen the picture before. It was taken of him from outside as he stood in the window looking down the street, waiting and lost. As he began to read her first sentence, he knew he had been correct, there was a lifetime exchanged in a 3 second glance. Silently reading, “As I look through his eyes I am also looking through mine, staring down a road that most don’t see, waiting for someone who will never return and becoming someone that most will never understand, we see what is real, what is lost and never found and forever dreaming of a way to move beyond…..”
She gave him a moment and finally speaking simply said, “Welcome home.”
When he finally left the bar it was closer to dawn than night. As the crisp, fresh air filled his lungs, his head cleared. Usually he was the one looking for the moment in others, the glimpses of reality that most fail to see. The black notebook was almost weightless in his pocket, but he felt the weight of the moment. For tonight, he had been seen.