It was only fitting that the cold rain was turning into sleet and freezing onto the pavement. The thin, slick ice made the walk home treacherous but Val didn’t own a car and didn’t want to try to hail a cab. He pulled the collar of his coat up around his neck and hunkered down trying to stay warm. It just figured, cold, ugly, night to a cold, ugly day.
His mood was almost foul enough to carry him straight home but it was Thursday and the bar was halfway between the hospital and his apartment building. It only made sense to stop in for a pint, warm up and thaw out for a bit. He could catch the scores on the television over the bar and the beer would make the day a little easier to brush aside. His feet knew what was good for him, even if his mind didn’t and when he grew closer to the Irish pub, he found himself turning down the street inside of continuing on toward his apartment.
Val had never been a drinker and had never truly hung out in a bar. He had never really been comfortable in a crowd and couldn’t stand drunks and on the rare occasion in college when friends had dragged him along drinking, he’d found the bars crawling with both. It was only by chance, on a day months ago when he’d been walking around the neighborhood trying to think, that he’d turned into O’Malley’s. It was dim inside, but not at all dark. The bar was paneled in wood, dark and warm. In a back room were pool tables but he never played, he stayed at the bar.
It was a lovely bar, cherry wood, polished to a high shine. A brass railing lined it, glowing with the care given to it. It stood inside the main room, dominating it. The glow from the liquor bottles sent warm tones about the patrons. There were always peanuts in bowls waiting to be eaten and comfortable stools to rest on.
The entire pub felt welcoming. It wasn’t what he’d expected. There had only been a handful of people inside, all looking like working men like himself on their way home. There were no insipid, date hungry, women clawing for attention in too tight jeans and gaudy make up. No one ever bothered him, he was just allowed to sit and drink his pint in peace. At the most he’d grunt monosyllable conversations to the occasional neighbor along the bar and he was left alone otherwise.
He’d liked the place so much he’d been making it a regular habit to stop in for a pint on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Not every Tuesday and Thursday but more often than not and never on any other day. He liked that it took time for himself, liked that no one knew he went there, liked that he had discovered it after, not before, that awful night six months before.
This Thursday night was no different then other Thursday nights except the weather had kept the normally thin crowd even thinner. That was fine with him, he shook out the damp from his coat and made his way to ‘his’ bar stool. It never felt the same if someone was sitting in his spot, which was totally idiotic but he tried not to think too hard over it. He pulled his coat off, dropped it on the barstool beside his and sat down.
He glanced to the young man behind the bar, a face he knew but had no name to go with it. The twenty something was good looking, in a slick, stylish way and sometimes seemed a little put out that Val hadn’t ever shared his life story with him. The man had tried to get him talking, but Val came here for silence, not to share his thoughts. They exchanged nods now and the younger man produced the pint of beer without having to be asked.
Val took a sip, was suddenly glad he’d stopped as he started to warm up from the night’s chill, and turned his eyes up to the TV. The basketball game was playing but it wasn’t Val’s team so he read the ticker below trying to spot the scores. His eyes hurt, everything felt strained and worn out.
Beside him, glass clinked together and Val glanced over. Two barstools down sat a fellow that he again knew by face but not by name. Close to thirty, dressed normally in jeans and a t-shirt or a button down, Val always had the sense that he should know the man from somewhere but he could never place it. He’d chalked it up to the fact that the man had one of those faces. Ordinary, neither ugly nor handsome, there was a dependable quality to his appearance but not one of his features truly stood out.
Only tonight he stood out, not for his looks but for how he looked. His head was resting on one of his hands, the elbow braced on the cherry wood of the bar. An expression of decided unhappiness had twisted up his face and he was toying with one of four empty shot glasses. That alone was odd enough, given he’d never seen the man drink anything more than a beer or two.
He weighed everything in his head and figured that the string of meaningless conversations they’d had over the weather, politics, sports and life in general allowed him to disturb the man.
“Hey, awful cold out tonight.” Val started, nodding to the man but glancing away to check the game.
The fellow beside him grunted. “Yeah, cold.”
“I don’t mean to be rude, but you look like how I feel. Did your day go as well as mine?” Val cracked open a peanut shell and popped the nut into his mouth. He wasn’t overly fond of peanuts but he liked the process of shelling them.
“Don’t know, did your love life fall into the shitter today to?”
He took a swallow of the beer to wash the peanut down and nodded. “Sort of.” He reached over offered his hand. “I’m Val.”
The man looked a little surprised but accepted the hand. “I know.”
“Have we met? I keep thinking that I know your face.”
“Naw, we haven’t met. I’m Gavan Maddocks. Don’t strain yourself, I’m an OR nurse over at Harbor Mercy. I’ve seen you in hallways.” Gavan started stacking his empty shot glasses into a pyramid.
Val nodded. “I don’t get over your way much.”
That earned a shrug. “So what happened to ruin your day?”
How many people had he interacted with, colleagues and the like, during the day and not one of them had bothered to notice let alone ask Val if something was wrong. There was something comforting about the bar, something that made it okay to talk and ask questions that would otherwise be far too personal.
“My fiancée called off our wedding, permanently.”
That made Gavan sit up a little straighter. “Ouch, I’m sorry. Where were you going? Toronto or Boston?”
Val sipped his beer. “Her family is just across the state line so we were going to just have it here.”
That made Gavan wonder if he was far drunker than he’d thought. “She? Wow, okay, so did she know? About you? Cause, I mean, trust someone that’s batted for both teams, women are clever and if she didn’t know about you, I can see why she might be pissed.”
“I’m sorry, what?” He tried to gauge how drunk the man across from him was because he wasn’t making sense.
“Did she find out you were gay?”
Val choked on his swallow of beer, grateful it hadn’t been a peanut. “What? I’m not gay.”
Gavan glanced around to make sure he was in the right place. “Yeah, cause so many straight men hang out in a gay bar.”
“This is a gay bar?” Val knew his eyes had gone wide but he glanced around and really looked. There wasn’t any women in the bar, not just missing the tarts, there wasn’t any. The few men were clumped together in small groups, talking softly together.
The look on Val’s face was so surprised that Gavan laughed. “Oh, you really didn’t know?”
Val shook his head and hoped he didn’t blush. “Should I go?”
“Are you sure you’re straight?”
That wasn’t a question Val was ever willing to discuss. “I’ve a fiancée. Or, I had one, don’t know what I have now. Should I go? I mean, I’m…”
“Don’t worry about it, you’re going to disappoint a couple of guys but it’s cool. You’re not in here on weekends, I’d avoid it if I were you. You’re cute enough you’ll get your ass pinched.” The shocked openly lost look on Val’s face made Gavan wonder if he’d only made the man’s day worse. “I’m sorry, I’m drunk. Look, it’s fine, don’t worry about it. You’re comfortable here right? Well, nothing’s changed.”
Val rubbed his eyes and shook his head. O’Malley’s was a gay bar, it was almost absurd. The first time in his life he’d found a place that he was comfortable relaxing in and it was a gay bar. God hated him, that was the only answer. The entire universe was conspiring to make his life into a massive joke with a bad punch line.
“Hey now, don’t take it so hard. I’m bi and they haven’t kicked me out. What happened with the would be wifey?”
Val sighed and went back to picking peanut shells apart. “I’ve no idea. I really don’t understand that woman. I mean, I can’t seem to make her happy. We were dating, she wanted to get married so I agreed. She picked the same weekend as my birthday but I agreed. When my sister was killed she made the choice to postpone the wedding and I agreed. Now, she calls me three days before we were supposed to be getting married, three days before my birthday and on the anniversary of my sister’s death to tell me she thinks we should put it off indefinitely. I agree and she goes crazy. Chews me out about not caring, I’ve given in to everything she’s wanted and that’s not enough?” The words poured out. He’d only meant to say the least possible to explain the situation but once he started all of his frustration boiled up.
Gavan ordered two more shots and slid one over to Val. “I’m sorry. Was she older or younger than you?” “Huh?”
“Oh. Older, by eighteen months.” He smiled softly and cherished the sharp stab of grief. “We might as well have been twins. She and her husband and their two kids were killed in a car accident six months ago today.” Val spun the shot glass around in his fingers before downing half of it in a quick swallow.
“I’m sorry for your loss.” Gavan whispered out.
Val closed his eyes a moment, he was mortally tired of sympathy. “Thank you.”
“Well, I think it was cold and ridicules of that girlfriend of yours to give you such a hard time. Six months is nothing and God, to get pissy because someone agrees with you?”
“She says I have no passion for her. That I’ve no passion for anything. I don’t know what she wants. Some white knight on a horse in some stupid, poorly written story maybe, life isn’t like that. No one, I mean no one, loves that way.” He finished the shot.
“A cynic, careful or you’ll spoil my illusions. If it’s any consolation, I’m on the verge of being dumped myself.”
Val took the opening to change the subject from himself to the other man. “Why?”
“Oh, he…” Gavan stopped and sighed. “No, it isn’t him. My life is complicated. I’ll sometimes be at work for twelve hours or more, so a lot of my time is eaten up there and I live with my cousin. He can’t live alone, he’s, well, he can’t live alone. I’m responsible for him so he takes up a lot of my time. It doesn’t leave a lot of time left over for my love life.” He downed his shot and grimaced. “Eventually they demand more time then I can give and they leave. He wants to take me away for the weekend, I’ve off but I can’t leave my cousin. He pretty much told me if I wanted our relationship to continue I’d find a way to go. Valentine’s Day and all that nonsense.” Gavan added up the days. “Oh my God, your birthday is on Valentine’s Day!”
“Yeah, lucky me, I got stuck with the name Valentine too.”
That made Gavan laugh. “Oh my God, that’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard. Oh, you win.” The laughter came harder and drew tears to his eyes.
“It’s not funny.” Val tried to scold but the near manic laughter of the man beside him started to infect him. “It’s really not.” “Oh I know!” Gavan continued to laugh. “It’s awful, simply awful! And she wanted it to be your anniversary too? Oh my God! That’s so cute! I bet it would have been a cute wedding!”
“The cake was going to be white frosting and red velvet cake. It looked like the damned thing was bleeding.” Val agreed, feeling a smile draw to his face at the other man’s near hysterical laughing. “She was going to make the bridesmaids wear angel wings.”
Gavan was laughing so hard now he was snorting. “Oh my God! I’m so,” his breath hitched. “So sorry!”
Val found himself chuckling and told himself it was the whiskey.