Over the course of a month, I’m posting a short novella titled We Almost Had It which traces the friendships and romances of a group of thirty-something social media managers in Seattle as they try to figure out what a fulfilling life looks like in the digital age. The story was inspired by Shopping Is a Feeling, an album released by former Gastbys American Dream guitarist Bobby Darling under the moniker What What What. Click here to go back to the seventh chapter, “Lost in Space”, or here to start the story over at the beginning.
“Hey, what d’you want?” Rachel asked over her shoulder.
Kelli turned to her friend with a blank face. She had heard the words but not understood them. “What?” she asked.
“What do you want to drink?”
Kelli blinked and then looked across the bar again to where Alex had been. He was gone now but Paul was still there, chatting with someone she didn’t know.
“Kelli, for fuck’s sake, what do you want to drink?” Rachel’s voice was raised, trying to get Kelli’s attention but Kelli’s whole being was still turned towards the far end of the bar. She was pleasantly buzzed and she could feel lightning in her fingertips. There were moments, Kelli believed, when the universe was trying to communicate with you and, for whatever reason, you needed to be in the proper headspace to receive the message. It seemed to Kelli that she was having one of those nights and, as she felt electric currents running through her, she knew that she was in the right state of mind. She had wanted to come back to Seattle for a lot of reasons, yes, and in her most honest moments she knew that sometimes she thought of Alex when considering those reasons but what was he doing here, right now? Of all the bars in the city, how did they end up in the same tiny dive? Kelli had never subscribed to Chad’s ideas of fate and destiny but running into Alex on back to back nights as soon as she came back to Seattle certainly smacked of some kind of intervention. What if it was divine?
A bartender stood behind the counter, looking exasperated as Rachel shouted at an oblivious Kelli. “Kelli, I love you but you’re killing me. What the fuck do you want to drink?”
“Manhattan, extra bitters,” came the answer. But it wasn’t Kelli who spoke it.
“Alex!” she exclaimed. She leaned in and pulled him into a tight hug.
“About fucking time,” said Rachel.
“It’s so good to see you,” Kelli said to Alex, holding his shoulders and looking him up and down.
“You too,” he said. His teeth flashed brightly in a wide smile.
“What’re you doing here?”
“I should be asking you that. I happen to live in the area but what brings the illustrious Kelli Mitty to a dive like this?”
“There was a party but it was—well, it was shit. So we left. Me and Rachel. And then we, I don’t know. Walked around. Had some drinks. Now we’re here.”
Rachel handed Kelli a drink and then leaned in to give Alex a wordless hug. She smiled at him knowingly.
“It’s Alex, can you believe it?” Kelli said. “It’s so good to see him, isn’t it?”
“It really is,” said Rachel. “But why don’t you two get out of the way of these poor people who are trying to order their drinks. Have a seat. Do some catching up.” Spotting an empty table in a back corner of the bar, she put a hand on each of their shoulders and led them like a teacher guiding schoolchildren. Once they sat down, Rachel left them and wound back through the bar until she found Paul, whom she hugged in greeting, and Randy, who shook her hand in introduction.
At the small table in the back of the bar, Alex couldn’t take his eyes off of Kelli. Though he had certainly had too much to drink, he didn’t feel sick. There was a warm glow in his stomach. He had never felt better in his life.
“Just like old times, isn’t it?” Kelli said.
“Just like,” said Alex. “Although some things have changed.”
“I guess I did get married.”
The warm glow in Alex’s stomach soured. Reality came crashing down on him. What had he expected this to be, anyway? Kelli was married now. She’d grown up and moved on with her life. He was the only one still lurking around their old haunts, creeping through her social media feeds and living vicariously through an imagined life that would never come to fruition.
“Not everything has changed,” she said. She smiled at him across the table, across the years, across the wide chasm that had grown between them since the very idea of “them” had broken apart a lifetime ago. Her smile was so pure and honest that it forced Alex to evaluate all the untruths embedded in his own life. It told him to stop living within his mind and to start living in the world, in his life. To his everlasting surprise, he was willing to listen. For her, he could listen. He could be honest.
But first he had to know. Before he could move on, he had to know.
Digging into an unknown well of courage or desperation—which, often enough, were the same thing—Alex lifted his hand onto the table and reached out but, without so much as a glance at his outstretched reach, Kelli moved her hands into her lap. Only a day before that gentle move would have killed him, the final blow to his imagined romance. But not now. Not today. Not with her here, back in his life, smiling all the while.
In place of her hand he took his drink and when he set it back down he felt that somehow, for the first time in years, he would be okay. He wanted her back. Oh, he desperately wanted her back. That longing and wanting that had consumed him through all these many years was not gone but for the first time it was not crippling. For the first time Alex felt that, though he wanted her with every fiber of his being, if he could not have her it would not destroy him. That his life would go on. That he would find other wants, maybe none so potent or beloved, but enough to sustain him. For the first time in a long, long time, Alex knew that whatever came next, he could handle it. He would be okay.
Kelli, who knew Alex better than anyone had ever known him, looked at her long friend and saw in him something she had never seen before. It brightened her smile, a true and honest smile the likes of which she hadn’t worn for years. Here he was, Alex, her first and maybe most important love and, after all these years, he had grown. She had too. And she had loved. She had loved Chad in his way but loving him was a muted experience while loving Alex had been a cacophonous riot of emotion. A sweeping sense of pride and companionship overwhelmed her and then, without thinking about it, she was speaking as comfortably and confidently as if no time or hardship had passed between them. Alex, changed as he was, found that his words flowed freely too. They fell into deep conversation, the world around them disappearing so that the only real place was that small table in the back of a dingy bar.
It was wonderful.
Standing around a high-top table, Rachel and Paul reminisced about their wilder days. Paul narrated the tales and Rachel kept them centered around Alex so as to entertain Randy. The highlight story resolved with Paul having to sneak the then-underaged Alex, Kelli and Rachel into a bar as the result of a lost bet. Once in the bar, Alex got so drunk that he started pushing glasses off their table so that he could watch them shatter on the floor. When Paul asked him what the fuck he thought he was doing, Alex said simply, “It’s for the elephants.” While Rachel and Kelli struggled to contain their laughter long enough to drag Alex out of the place, Paul tried to distract the bar’s owner with a long and meandering history of Seattle’s nightlife that favorably compared said owner to Lou Graham, proprietor of the old city’s most well-respected brothel. Shortly thereafter, Paul found that he too was no longer welcome on the premises.
“That was a tough night for Alex, though,” said Paul. “He was hungover for three days.” As Rachel wiped tears from her eyes, Randy cleaned up the beer he had spilled in laughter and Paul stepped to the bar for yet another round.
“It sounds like the four of you were really close,” said Randy.
“We were. Alex and Kelli were…well, they were their own thing. But Paul and I were their best friends, so we all ended up spending a hell of a lot of time together.”
“So how come I’ve never met you before? I mean, I go out with Alex all the time, and Paul’s there too half the time. I’ve heard some stories about you and Kelli, I guess, but Alex doesn’t really go in for telling stories that much and he usually shuts Paul down if he thinks he’s going there. I get that Kelli moved away but you stayed here, right? So how come we never see you around?”
Randy had a knack, when drunk, for asking probing questions.
“Look at this guy. Mr. Fucking Inquisitor. Christ.”
“That’s not an answer.” Randy knew better than to give up because, despite her protestations, Rachel seemed thrilled to dish a little gossip about her friends.
“Alright, Mr. Inquisitor. Here’s how it went down: the final Alex-Kelli breakup—and I say final because those two were on-again-off-again in the worst kind of way—was fucking brutal. Screaming. Crying. Blood. Guts. Everything. It was a goddamned nightmare for everyone. Eventually Kelli moved to Cali and Alex…well, Alex disappeared for the most part.”
“But once Kelli was gone couldn’t you have still hung out with Alex and Paul—you were still friends, right?”
“You’re missing the fucking point, Inquisitor. When a group is that close and there’s a breakup that’s that bad—shit, it’s like when your parents get divorced. Maybe you don’t have to pick a side but you only get to live with one of them. Paul took Alex and I took Kelli. And that’s how it was for a long time. I’m not saying anyone was happy about it.”
There was little time for Randy to consider these complicated ties because at that moment, the last person that he expected to see walked up behind Rachel and put a hand on her shoulder.
“Where’s Kelli?” asked Chad.
“She’s—wait, how the fuck did you know we were here?”
“You know this asshole?” asked Randy.
“How do you know him?” Rachel replied.
“As of today, he’s my new boss,” said Randy. “He wants to fire me.”
“Where is she?” Even in the dimly lit bar, Rachel could tell that Chad was furious, that he was boiling with barely suppressed rage.
“Get your hands off her, man,” said Randy.
“I don’t care what your name is. Where’s my wife?”
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” said Rachel.
“You have got to be kidding me,” said Randy as he realized that Alex was now romantic rivals with their boss. Instinctively, he glanced over to where Alex and Kelli had been sitting only to find the table empty.
“Well?” Chad said, glaring at Rachel. But she was spared having to formulate a plan because at that moment Paul returned to their table. The unspoken look on Rachel’s face told him that something was wrong and that the problem stemmed from the severe looking man standing to her left. Paul didn’t quite know the details but Rachel’s body language made it clear that this guy was hassling them and needed to go. Paul, of course, had a plan for such occasions.
“Nice to meet you,” he said, extending a hand to Chad who took the proffered shake while looking confused. “You must be…”
“Chad. Of course,” said Paul. “Right this way, Chad.” With a deft movement, he put his hand on Chad’s back and guided him away from the table. As he led Chad across and then out of the bar he began to recite a history of Seattle’s nightlife that dated back to Madame Lou herself.
“I am so confused,” said a bemused Randy.
“Amen,” said Rachel. She turned back towards the door and then back to Randy. “You can start with the part where Chad is your boss.”
“As of today, yes.”
“Which means he’s also Alex’s boss?”
“Jesus fucking Christ,” she said.
“That about sums it up.”
The bar was even more crowded now than when they had arrived. Strangers sat at the small table where Rachel had left Alex and Kelli. Both Rachel and Randy scanned the room but there was no hint of where Alex and Kelli could have gone.
“Goddamnit,” said Rachel. “Where the fuck did they go?” Randy’s hands were on his temples and he seemed deep in thought. He didn’t respond.
Just then Paul came back to the bar seeming slightly winded, like he had been running. “He’s gone,” he said. “I took him around the corner to that distillery under the flimsy pretense that Alex and Kelli were actually over there. He didn’t buy it. In fact, I think he thought I was making a move on him which—come on. Don’t flatter yourself, asshole. Anyway, he saw something on his phone and then jumped in a car and disappeared. It must have been an Uber. They took a left onto 5th but I couldn’t tell where they were going.”
“Well, shit,” said Rachel before explaining that, Chad, in addition to being Alex’s romantic adversary, was also his boss.
“Well, shit, indeed,” said Paul. “I’ll go give Alex a heads up so that he doesn’t get caught unawares. Our friend Chad didn’t seem like too kind a fellow.”
“Yeah, about that,” Rachel said, grabbing Paul’s shoulder as he tried to walk away from the table. “They’re gone.”
“Where’d they go?” Paul asked.
“That’s the million dollar question right now.”
Neither Alex nor Kelli had responded to any texts and their read receipts said only “Delivered.” They could have been anywhere in the city and, as well as Paul and Rachel knew Alex and Kelli, neither had any idea where the erstwhile lovebirds might have gone. To make matters worse, Chad seemed to have an idea of where they were and every second that passed seemed to bring an uncomfortable—and potentially violent—meeting even closer. The situation looked bleak. And then Randy spoke.
“I think I know where they are,” he said. They were the first words he had spoken since Paul had returned. The impossibility of the statement left Rachel speechless. But not Paul.
“Well then let’s get going, shall we?” he said.
It was quiet. The hum of the city reverberated on one side and the chatter of the waterfront rumbled on the other. But here, on a small cobblestoned alley that ran parallel to the water, it was quiet. The alley cut across the sloping streets that ran down to the shore. To the east was the city bustle and to the west, the allure of the waterfront. In between, in alleys such as this one, was the demilitarized zone of Seattle’s nightlife.
Wanting to talk in some place more relaxed than the bar, Alex and Kelli had snuck out a side exit. They knew better than to tell their friends about their escape and turned off their phones to avoid any inquisitive calls or texts. It was all very high school, from their sneaking away to the certainty that Paul and Rachel would mock them for it, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, they were fine with it. It was nice to feel young again, to enjoy the illusion of being carefree even as they knew that their adult lives, which were anything but carefree, awaited them in the morning. That was the beauty of the night. That it was without care even as it was surrounded by the complications and hardships of day, an island of joy amidst a sea of sorrows.
“I’m glad you came back,” Alex said as they drifted down the alley past a French restaurant where he had taken Kelli once when they were in college. It had been the most expensive meal of his life and it had been worth every penny for reasons that had nothing to do with the food itself.
“Me too,” she said. She was looking down at her feet and didn’t seem notice the restaurant with its ornate facade. Their footfalls clicked lightly on the stone. In the distance the rumbling world could be heard, grinding on and on and on.
They came out from the alley as it opened up to a steep avenue that ran westward down to the water. A small bench sat on the sidewalk next to a storefront, angled so that it faced down the sloping road and out over the Sound.
“Let’s sit for a minute,” Kelli said. The nighttime view was remarkable, the dark sky hanging above the dark water, the stars and streetlights mingling their phosphorescent glow. Kelli felt the ache of nostalgia in her heart but she realized, for maybe the first time in her life, that she wasn’t nostalgic for some long-lost moment or remembered joy. She was nostalgic for right then. She didn’t want the moment she was in to ever end.
“Why’d you come back?” Alex asked. “The truth this time.”
“Alex Mooney, are you calling me a liar?”
Out of the corner of his eye, Alex winked at her as he gave her a little shove with his shoulder. “Can’t fool me,” he said.
“No, I never could fool you.”
A conversion van ran down the sloping street and for a moment the quietude was broken and the dark was disturbed. At the bottom of the hill, the windowless vehicle turned left and the dark quiet of the night was restored.
“If you know me so well, why don’t you tell me why it is that I came back, Mr. Can’t Be Fooled?”
Alex leaned forward and put his elbows on his knees. He held his left hand in his right, running his fingers over one another, first the pinky and then the ring finger, rubbing absentmindedly at his first knuckle. “You had unfinished business here,” he said without turning back to face Kelli. He spoke the words with conviction, firmly into the night so that, despite the opening before them, they echoed back to where Kelli sat beside him. “You weren’t ready to give this place up. Not yet.”
There was a lull in the sound of voices and vehicles that flowed down from the city and, in that absence, they were left with the call of the wind rushing in from the Sound. There were voices carried in that wind, but they were broken and distorted. To Alex it was the sound of the past as time washed over it, carrying forward those solid pieces that seemed built to last. To Kelli it was the sound of the unwritten future, the promise of meaningful control, a life that offered more than three square meals every day.
“Something like that,” she said, at last. “I’ve started to think that I’ve spent a lot of my life being pulled along, letting other people guide and shape me.” Absentmindedly, she ran her fingers across her wedding ring. “I don’t know exactly what I want, Alex. But I don’t want to be a passenger anymore.”
They stood from the bench and walked down the slope towards the waterfront. The city receded behind them, the murmur of the water surrounding them as they came at last to a railing that overlooked the bay. At the water’s edge a summer breeze pushed the sounds of the city back so that, though they stood side by side, they were each of them alone in the silent space of their thoughts.
“Alex’s phone went straight to voicemail.”
“Same with Kelli’s.”
“Can we stop for a minute?” asked Randy. “Just one minute,” he wheezed. Assuming that an Uber would take too long to pick them up and then weave through traffic, they had decided to run, although their final speed was closer to power-walking than anything that could be mistaken for running. Still, they had been going nonstop for nearly ten minutes which was roughly ten minutes longer than Randy’s average exercise routine.
“We’ll stop when we find them,” said Paul. “It’s only three more blocks to the water.”
“Wasn’t this your fucking idea, anyway?” asked Rachel who seemed nearly as winded as Randy.
“No. I said I knew where they were. You two insisted we go and find them.”
“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” said Paul as they turned left and began a steep descent towards the waterfront. “How did you figure out where they’d be?”
“Easy enough, actually,” said Randy between wheezing gasps, “A long time ago Alex mentioned that the waterfront was the most romantic place in the city.”
“What in the fuck were you two talking about when that came up?” asked Rachel.
“If this little adventure doesn’t kill me, we can have a nice long chat about romance and gender roles but for now let’s not worry about it, okay?”
At last the street leveled out and they emerged onto the wide expanse of the waterfront park. In the distance, silhouetted against the railing, they saw two figures leaning close. As they crossed the street and ran into the park, a black sedan pulled up beside them. A door swung open and Chad emerged, looking furious.
“Alex!” they called as they ran. “Kelli!” but their voices were carried up and away by the breeze, to be deposited back in they city where they were welcome.
Leaning against the railing, they turned to look at one another, the light of the streetlights shimmering on the water and in their eyes. They were together again, somehow and in some way. The past lay behind them, unrecoverable, and the future stretched out in front of them, unknowable. They were not who they had been and they did not yet know who they would be. Even as they each felt the magnetic pull of their present lives drawing them apart, there was also a kinetic energy pushing them forward towards one another, towards the one who knew them so well, for whom they had cared so deeply, more deeply and truly than they had ever cared for anyone else.
Caught in that push and pull, balanced between what was and what might have been, they both closed their eyes and, for a moment at least, leaned in.