• Pages

  • Site Sections

  • Tags

  • Archives

Out Of Time – Short story: New York, Message in a Bottle



Out of Time – Short Story

Even without Anne, New York was still great; I went to all the places we saw for the first time together. Much loved, shared movies ghosted through the tramline streets, avenued by ranks of giant glass and concrete trees. It was ten years since we were there; 5 since she got sick; 2 since she died.

I’d left the best to last. One of the few buildings in New York that lets you approach it gradually. Most jump into your personal space with a brash, even aggressive ‘look at me!’ But though dwarfed by her surrounding monoliths, Grand Central Station draws you irresistibly towards her. ‘Come see: I’m even more interesting inside.’ A decade disappeared as I stood again marvelling at the cavernous marble cathedral infused with the spirit of arrival and departure. Mercifully we had no idea at the time Anne and I, of any difference between our tickets. But only mine was a return. Now, oh yes now, it really hurts again.

I climbed the steps to our favourite place: the tall-stooled, ice cool, warm-wooded bar clinging to a marble corner like a side chapel away from the bustling body of the cathedral. I scaled the summit of one of the stools with the effortless grace of a young Paul Newman. My American dream: the fantasy that is New York sucks you in. Cool by proxy.

Such a long shot but as the greying barman approached I said,
“Hello Sean. Still never forget a face?” Unfazed, he stared deeply into my eyes, riffling through his memory. He put both hands on the bar and stared harder still.
“English.” I nodded.
“Long time ago though.”
“Ten years” I said. Another long pause.
“Philosophy. Weinstein, Witstein or something.” Christ what a way to be remembered, the rambling Wittgensteinian drunk.
“How’s your wife sir? Lovely lady.” Hadn’t seen that one coming. How can you feel as if you’re falling when you’re sitting down. Sober.

It took four large Jacks for me and two Black Bushmills for Sean, to get through the niceties. But we made it. And the pictures of his grandchildren moved us gratefully forward away from the past. The bar was busy now with all the bustle of diners, theatre-goers, guys unwinding with a couple of martinis before heading eagerly home; and one or two blurring the edges enough to be able to face the same destination.

I don’t know how long she’d been there. A bit like an unheard clock whose ticking suddenly drifts into your consciousness. Like the clock’s tick, once noticed, she was all I could see tucked quietly at the corner of the bar. You can’t reduce seeing a person to a lifeless list: age, eyes, hair, dress etc. What it is to feel connected to a complete stranger is harder still to explain. She looked at home, comfortable, and sad.

I have this thing with peanuts: grasp a modest handful and from a cupped hand, cop them one at a time at the target. A childish sense of challenge and adventure always leads me to widening the distance. Puerile but fun. Anne would sternly reprimand me at my lack of social graces and then my game of singles would become a back and forth doubles, always collapsing in silliness surrounded by the debris of failed targetting and disapproving looks of those who only knew how to take their alcohol, not how to enjoy it.

This time, more sad than silly, I took a handful of Sean’s delicious, carefully metered peanuts and served the first one into the air. Ace! The oft-shared pattern ensued: success begat overconfidence and Mr Daniels did the rest. Single shot became rapid fire until, just as with water from badly adjusted windscreen washers, three wayward nuts in a row whistled straight over my head seeking targets of opportunity elsewhere. As I swivelled on the stool to assess collateral damage, I caught a brief smile from the end of the bar. About turn accomplished, my heart sank as I saw two of my lost launchees nestling in the folds at the back of a chiffon trimmed, elegant cocktail dress. Mercifully oblivious of the incursion, the wearer of the dress continued in animated conversation with her avid listener. It’s strange that whenever you make a bad call, you always know you’re making a mistake but you just can’t stop. To give me courage I took a sip from a just refreshed glass, and leaned forward carefully on my mission of nut retrieval: a couple of heart-stopping moments later, I had them safely recovered. But God mocks us: as I triumphantly pulled back from enemy territory I realised my foot was soaking wet at $10 a shot. All would have been well if I’d only left Mr Daniels on the bar when I leaned forward. Inspector Clouseau strikes again.

As I looked, shamefaced, into Sean’s non-judgemental but pitying eyes, I noticed in the corner of my eye, shaking shoulders and unsuccessfully stifled laughter. Sean leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially:
“Just follow me to the end of the bar sir.” Crestfallen and embarrassed, I dutifully obeyed.
“Theresa, this is John, can you keep him out of mischief while I still have some customers left?” She smiled, nodded and Sean returned to the busy part of the bar. She turned to me and with a startlingly evocative tone of mock disapproval said,
“That was quite a performance. What do you do for an encore?”
“Total, abject embarrassment.” I replied. She grinned, put a hand gently on my shoulder and said,
“Lighten up, only your pride got hurt, and that’s never a bad thing. But perhaps your next smart drink should be a strong coffee.” I nodded in agreement and she ordered two large espressos from an approving Sean.

For all the sadness in her eyes, Theresa had a great sense of the silly. She listened, no, more, she heard me as it all rushed out. Anne, New York, giggles, fun, finding sea glass, loving movies: an obscenely beautiful Spring day and an awkward young Scottish doctor, words of lead, fear, hope, despair, defiance, hope…..and finally, despair.

I think two things did it: first I had made a complete fool of myself and then shared pain so private only a stranger could hear it. Theresa began to open up. Like me, a dam burst. She had just been through a totally unexpected divorce when they met. He was a widower, built boats and loved the sea with a respect only a sailor understands. Strong, rooted in his beloved South Carolina. Still in love with his wife. He and Theresa were two damaged people trying to hold on to something. Eventually she had to force him to choose: his cherished pain of loss or a new and different love. He chose Theresa and at sea, on his way to say goodbye to his past, he was drowned saving a family capsized in a sudden squall.

As this sad, beautiful woman opened her heart to me, my pain reached out to hers. But something more, unsettling: a stirring of long discarded memory. An echo. After a while, as if we had sat out the darkness of a storm together, the skies lightened, the sun emerged and we talked of books and movies; the emotional roller-coaster ride of raising teenage kids – her son, my pigeon pair; of politics and inevitably even a little philosophy. And all the while the hustle and bustle of New York scurried to and from trains. Lives in transit. I finally initiated Theresa into the strict rules of peanut doubles and sure enough we were soon attracting glowering looks from fellow barflies disconcerted, I know not why, at the occasional small round nut bouncing past them on the bar. Eventually Sean, his gentle Irish face struggling to look stern, an effort totally undermined by the irrepressible twinkle in his eye, admonished us.
“Like a coupla kids. Theresa, I have to say I’m surprised at you.” I grinned, got up and said, “I can’t handle a telling off until I have been to the…er John is it?” Theresa flashed me a wry grin and nodded. I headed for the stylish, glass panelled Gents.

When I returned, she’d gone. So had Sean’s twinkle. No: he was sorry he didn’t know why or where. After a while he pointed to a row of empty, clear glass beer bottles lined up on a shelf above the bar. Each had a name scrawled on the front and several had rolled up pieces of paper in them.
“The Irish Mail” Sean said. “So many regulars use us as a meeting place or landmark, that I set it up a while back.” Apparently any regular could buy a bottle for $10/year, proceeds to Sean’s Catholic Children’s Society. Leaving or picking up a message cost another $1 donation to the same cause, Sean proudly told me he’d raised over $1,000 last year. I paid $10 and left a note in Theresa’s bottle. ‘I’d like to meet again before I go back.’ Sean rolled the note, put in her bottle and smiled at me.
“First message is on the house sir. You be safe now. Goodnight.” I was gently dismissed. Like all real pros, Sean knew how to clear a bar quickly without trouble or offence.

For the next three nights, armed with a book and a writing pad, I whiled away increasingly frustrated hours in the bar. Even Sean’s charm began to pall. My note remained stubbornly unmoved, protruding from Theresa’s post bottle. On the fourth night, only three days left in New York, I saw her bottle empty and a rolled spill of paper in mine. Sean had it down before I reached the bar. I handed over my dollar and snatched the paper. As I did so, something fluttered to the floor of the bar. Leaving it, I unrolled the paper. In strong, bold handwriting it said,
‘Not again. Sorry.’ Disappointment and frustration flooded over me. After a while I looked down at the thin strip of card that had fallen out of the letter. It was a cinema ticket. Late show, that same evening. Puzzled, I got directions from Sean and went to the movies.

I stood outside the ‘Downtown Roxy’ cinema. The neon sign on the flashing marquee read “the home of class c movies” I took a moment to wonder why it is always a critical neon letter that breaks. I went in. As I went towards the auditorium I passed large publicity stills of Kevin Costner and Robin Wright Penn. Sometimes when you drive, you do something really dumb, nearly kill yourself and others, but escape by sheer luck and then sit in a cold sweat of what might have been. Blood drains to the heart in protective retreat. This was my feeling as these pictures began to stir and agitate my memory. Christ! I used to love this movie. How could I have forgotten? Heart racing, head spinning I found an isolated seat. Not hard in an almost empty cinema. Nothing new I thought, it had flopped the first time round. Those cliché hairs were prickling on the back of my neck. I juddered. Someone walked over my grave.

I sat back and luxuriated in the opening images of an incoming sea, shimmering and rolling shorewards to Gabriel Yared’s superb score. Memories flooded back as the lithe beauty of Robin Wright Penn, running along the shore, found the bottle in the sand and unfurled its message within. Theresa.

Costner’s desolate widower, Garret, communing with his lost soul mate through messages consigned in hope to his beloved sea. Garret and Theresa: meant to meet, meant to love, not meant to be. First united, then for ever separated by the beautiful, implacable sea. All life ends in loss.

Ten years had not changed her much. Still beautiful, drinking in the corner of a New York bar. Still grieving. And afraid to love. ‘Not again. Sorry.’ After all these years, I still cried at the extraordinary words that ended the film. God how I loved movies. The magic reality of imagination.

I was still immersed in the emotions of the film as I walked the streets back to my hotel. For Robin Wright Penn Theresa was just one among many characters. For me, she was an entrancing evening in oh so solid, oh so real, Sean’s bar. An evening sub specie aeternitas. Go figure. I needed the sanity of sleep.

Sean was the perfect barman: that extraordinary blend of counsellor, therapist, confessor, philosopher and priest. I didn’t tell him the truth. How could I, I didn’t know it. He knew only the itinerary of Theresa’s life; came in three or four times a week, always early evening, probably from work, he didn’t know; stayed two to three hours; and disappeared. She was wry, sad, funny, and in his happily married Catholic way, Sean of course loved her. Protectively. I left another message, more in hope than expectation.

My cheap flight from Kennedy left at midnight. I’d told Sean I’d call in to say goodbye and he said he’d organise a cabbie friend to get me the airport. As I walked across the seemingly endless marble concourse I would be lying if I claimed I did not hope I’d see her rise, hold me close and bring me to life again as she had that evening. But I knew it could not be. Sean was standing hands outstretched on the bar. His face lit up when he saw me. In front of him was a very tall Jack Daniels buried in ice. Beside the drink stood a clear glass bottle empty but for a folded paper protruding from its neck. Sean pushed the bottle towards me and said gently, “postage paid sir”. I gingerly removed the paper. It was folded and sealed with tape. On the outside, in that strong beautiful hand were three words: ‘For the plane’.

Sean made me promise to return before he retired in 12 months time. I said I would and I knew I wouldn’t, but not why. His cabbie friend missed his native County Cork but like me, would never go back either. In a final act of trust, I waited until we were airborne, the unreal New York skyline flowing distantly beneath us like a moonlit sea. I teased open the end of the paper and stared, unseeing for a moment at the beautiful, carefully laid out writing. No address, no signature, just the unforgettable words that ended the film she sent me to see:

“It may be that most of us write our own life story, making it up as we go along. But others seem to have lives that are already shaped and planned, inescapable, perfect as a circle. If some lives form a perfect circle, others take shape in ways we cannot predict or always understand. Loss has been a part of my journey but it has also shown me what is precious. So has a love for which I can only be grateful.” *

I looked out of the window and watched the coastline of America disappear into the cloud as we climbed. For the second time in my life I felt an almost overwhelming sense of loss and sadness. But there are worse things in life than feeling sad.

(Zettel – 2004)

*Gerald DiPego – Screenplay: Message in a Bottle (1999)

Leave a Reply