Literature for your lunch break! Get a new story every day, delivered straight to your device, free.
app store app store

An Ex-Actor Performs in Soon We Will Deal with Loneliness


This is Caleb's third bar of the evening; it’s his birthday and he might as well enjoy it for all it’s worth. Lots of bars give you a complementary drink on your birthday, but the bartender holding his ID up to the light is irritating him.

"You think I'd have a phony driver's licence just to get a free birthday drink?" Caleb says.

"I don't like getting ripped off. You don't look like your picture," the bartender says, rubbing the plastic-coated ID card on his shirt, attempting to wipe away any coating of deception.

"I had my head shaved, but the rest of my face is pretty much the same. Look at the rest of my face," Caleb says, falling into his actor's voice, though he doesn’t act on stage any longer. “And I have a scar on my left leg from where my dog Rosebud bit me when I was a kid," Caleb elaborates, his words moving gracefully into stage gestures: he rolls up his shirt sleeves and shows the bartender the ROSEBUD tattoo on his left arm.

"I can't see your leg in this photo," the bartender says. It is a slow night, only a trickle of customers, and his disposition is suffering accordingly.

Then Caleb, proclaiming to the nearly empty bar—there is a woman wearing a wide-brimmed hat and nursing a dark-colored cocktail at the opposite side of the bar, but she ignores him—that no one can truly know who they are, that we are mysteries even to ourselves, shows the bartender his other tattoo. "The theatrical masks tragedy and comedy," he says slowly, the emphasis mocking. "If they find my body in an alley tonight," he continues, reaching for his ID, "these tattoos will identify me as conclusively as my teeth." He smiles widely and speaks through his teeth: "You want to see my scar?"

"Maybe on your next birthday you can take off your clothes, but tonight let's go for modesty," the bartender says, and goes to get his customer a birthday beer.

A few minutes later, while Caleb is drinking his beer and still discussing his identity with the bartender, how he plans on growing his hair back again, a woman sits down on the stool next to his, hits the counter with her fist—pounds the counter, actually—and orders, "Your finest house wine in the largest glass you have."

The same words, the identical manner, Caleb thinks. He looks at her as if looking at a touched-up photograph, attempting to determine what has been altered. Her hair color is different, hairstyle longer and curlier, but it is her, Caleb concludes. The woman's presence embraces his memory, digging quickly into the past. My God, three years since I slept with a woman, he thinks, and it's her. It is her, he tells himself.

It was at a different downtown bar, four or five blocks away, but they are physically close again. Maybe the perfume is different, but the lipstick is the same. He'd never forget such bright-red lipstick. That night he called her lipstick blood red, seductive. But in a good, sensual way, he defended his description after she had cringed at his exuberant words. The seductive part she said she liked, the more seductive the better, but not the blood red. After those two days together, she left the city, went to visit her ailing mother, promising to call when she got back. "She's an artist, but her arthritis is so bad she can barely hold a brush," the woman said to him as she pointed to the three paintings in her bedroom after they made love for the first time. Paintings of leafless trees and forbidding storm clouds and small, far-off people looking skyward. "They look frightened. Maybe they think the sky is going to fall," he said, his half-hearted attempt at art criticism. There were two more days of lovemaking. She didn't call.

"I'm considering getting a tattoo," the red-lipped woman suddenly says to Caleb, touching his ROSEBUD tattoo with delicate eroticism.

Three years ago, he revealed to her that he had gotten the ROSEBUD tattoo after getting depressed over how his acting career was going, hoping the tattoo would give him luck; this after telling himself he would never get a tattoo. He remembers mentioning to her that he was considering getting another tattoo, theatrical masks. How could she not remember that discussion? He wound up getting the second tattoo, not all that long after being with her, maybe a month, no longer than that.

"I've gone a quarter century without putting anything on my skin, but I'm having a massive spiritual crisis," the woman says. He’s uncertain if she’s joking about her life or confessing her pain to him.

"You think a tattoo will resolve your crisis?" Caleb says, careful not to sound mocking in case the woman is serious. He calculates she would have been twenty-two when he first met her. She refused to tell him her age then, even when he said he was thirty-eight and with not much to show for it.

She finishes her glass of wine quickly, and Caleb signals to the bartender to give the young woman undergoing a massive spiritual crisis another large glass of wine, losing his restraint, and jokes that it is her birthday, how about a complimentary birthday beverage?

"Need to see ID," the bartender says, unable to hold back a smile.

But how can she not remember him? Caleb wonders, stumbling into some sort of philosophical musing. He knew it was her the second she had sat down at the bar

Rosebud... She knew right away about Citizen Kane, and what the word symbolized in that film, but he told her that he had a dog named Rosebud when he was a kid, the same story he tells everyone when they ask about his tattoo. "My parents had it put down after it bit me. Bit me pretty savagely. Scars on my leg—faded maps of youth, but who wants to go on that journey?" That was the heart of his Rosebud tattoo story. Does she remember his scars from three years ago? They're faded but noticeable. He tenderly touches the theatrical masks, "Melpomene and Thalia, such sweet gals, such exquisite masks," he says. He’s just finished a three-week run in a play, which would turn out to be his last play. He tells the woman that he used to be an actor, mentions the name of that play, describes an earlier role of his, the way he had three years ago, tries saying a few of the same lines, but there is no recognition on her face.

"I don't know why I didn't succeed. Got this theatre tattoo after I stopped acting. That I find peculiar, but I'm not a big one on analysis. I could usually understand the roles I played, but not myself. Life's the biggest role, huh, and I don't quite get the character I'm playing," he says, unable to take his eyes off the woman's beautiful lips. He can remember the way she kissed, one moment soft, the next desperate, wild.

She pounds the counter again and orders another glass of wine, which Caleb tells the bartender to add to his tab.

"You like playing the swaggering hard-drinker," Caleb says, a little bar-room criticism.

"You think only men can be hard-drinking and swaggering?" the woman responds defiantly, jabbing him hard in the shoulder.

"Mind you, I used to play characters that I wasn't anything like," Caleb says, resisting touching his hurt shoulder. "I'm not an actor anymore, unless you consider this imbibing thespian routine dramatic...or comedic. The drinking didn't start until afterward. The serious drinking, that is. Hmm, serious drinking. That might qualify as oxymoron. Yep, fell off stage and then fell off the wagon—I'm a faller. Oh, Caesar has the falling sickness. I was never in Julius Caesar. Never did much Shakespeare. The dramatic drinking, sort of like an epilogue to my acting career. I do odd jobs—odd as in weird, not varied."

The woman smiles and drinks as he tells his story, commenting that he is an entertaining, natural actor, and if she were casting a big-time play, he would get the role and the nicest dressing room imaginable. Caleb wants to kiss her then and there, but instead buys her fourth drink. At that convivial, unburdened moment, remembering the passionate past, anticipating the romantic future, he would have bought her anything, not that he had enough money to buy her more than a few evenings' worth of drinks and a bouquet of blood-red roses to match her lipstick. With only a little left in her fourth glass of wine, she announces that she has to go to the little ladies’ room.

"Might as well have another beer while I'm waiting," he says to the bartender, and when he returns with another beer, his unfriendliness toward Caleb has eased.

Caleb finishes his seventh beer of the night—fourth at this bar—as he waits for the woman. Where is she? You have to admire a woman who can drink the finest house wines in the largest glasses like there's no tomorrow, he thinks. And get me to pay for her drinks. Hell, it's an investment, so to speak. He remembers her bragging a little while after they had first met how she could drink him under the table—she sure has a way with words—he telling her that she wasn't even born when he had his first drink, and how old are you anyway? "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," she said, sounding amazingly like Clark Gable, giving his crotch a quick touch, telling him her mother wasn't even born when Gone With the Wind was made. Maybe she would say the same thing when she returned. A great deal seems to be repeating itself tonight. But the memory lapses, or selective remembering, or whatever was the woman's state of mind, is baffling him.

Maybe this time we'll go for one night and I'll be happy with one or two times, Caleb thinks. Or simply being held. He misses simply being held that time three years ago. There was a real robustness to their activity back then. Not to mention a foray into kinkiness. Adventuresome lovemaking requires trust, she lectured him, the utmost in trust. Yes, she did use the word adventuresome, and who was he, in the heat of passion, to correct her? He had very long hair in those days, which she incorporated into her adventuresome lovemaking.

Should he tell her about their past encounter when she gets back or later, at her place? He's assuming they'll be going to her place. His place, the same place he was living at three years ago, is neat and sparse, but on the sombre side, as if he needs documentation that he isn't life's biggest success. Hardly fitting for a love nest. He wonders where she’s living nowadays, if it’s an apartment like the one three years ago. Very neat apartment for an adventuresome lover. The walls were adorned with beautiful paintings, done by her mother, she claimed. For some reason he didn't believe her about the paintings or the story about her mother's arthritis. But how could she forget him and their incredible lovemaking? Maybe she just has a lousy memory. Or maybe his appearance is so changed that she can be forgiven for not recognizing him. When's she coming back? Where is she? How long does a person need to spend in the little ladies’ room? He needs to be held. God, I'm thinking like a man who's been bitten by a venomous snake and needs the antidote pronto or else it's eternal darkness, baby, nothing but eternal darkness, he thinks, shaking his head at his own thoughts.

Caleb lifts the woman's glass and then kisses it. It's like he's performing the same scene again, the director insisting he get it right, except the last time was three years ago. There was lipstick on her glass three years ago and lipstick now. There are differences, certainly, but decides they are not significant differences.

Waiting for the woman, his nervousness growing, Caleb talks to the bartender and the other woman at the bar, as if they are the only two paying customers in the theater: "I'm sitting here in this borderline sleazy bar—no, no, bartender, you don't work in a sleazy bar…I said borderline sleazy…which means it might be borderline elegant, okay…sorry if my throwaway comment sounded insulting to you. Waiting for the woman who sat down next to me half an hour ago to come back from the little ladies room—she said that, not me…” She doesn't even remember we slept together, he thinks, for two nights, three years ago. Almost three years to the day—I have a good memory for dates, for all the good that does me. How can you forget someone who you slept with for two days—two straight days of drinking and loving and laughing—I think I still considered myself young then, but that's arbitrary, isn't it? I'm on the wrong side of forty now; then I was on the tail-end of thirty. He says this aloud, trying to make it sound humorous, even absurd, but failing miserably: "I'm on the wrong friggin' side of forty now; then I was on the friggin' tail-end of thirty…" He pauses. "Alcohol-burnished self-pity," he criticizes himself, but neither the bartender nor the other woman comments on his delivery or critical assessment.

Caleb remembers that they made love nine or ten times in those two days, morning to night, the longest romantic play/low-budget porno film he had ever been in. And a half-hour ago she looks him in the eyes, says he has lovely, soulful eyes, eyes she could get lost in, just like she said three years ago, all loving or should he say lusting. Sure, he's had his head shaved and has tattoos on both arms now and has had some hard times in the last three years, but so has she, yet he remembers her, remembers her perfectly. Well, that's all past tense; the present isn't looking so bad, and the future. All he can say about the future, the immediate future, is that soon we will deal with loneliness. That is what he’s thinking as he waits. That would be a great title for a play: Soon We Will Deal with Loneliness. "I wasn't one for finishing a play, though I started more than my fair share over the years. But I could act. No one could get tears to well up quicker than I could, or convince an audience that I wore hard luck like a skin." Caleb says this to himself, as much as to his audience.

Caleb sees the other woman stand up from the bar, and says: "Excuse me, would you do me a favor? Could you see how my friend is doing? She's been in the washroom an awfully long time. Thanks." Then he whistles to gain the bartender's attention but the man does not acknowledge his customer. "Bartender," Caleb says, raising his voice, "who do you need to know to get another beer?"

"Watch your dirty mouth," the bartender says angrily.

"No, I didn't say who do you need to blow to get another beer. I don't talk like that. And I haven't had too much to drink. Am I slurring my words? No! I get more articulate as I imbibe. A rare and unappreciated talent, mister bartender man."

The other woman returns and tells Caleb that the woman's bathroom was empty, except for her and the smell of vomit. The bartender discloses there's been throwing up in the men's bathroom tonight also.

"What do mean there was no one else in the washroom? You have trouble with your eyesight or something?" Caleb accuses the woman.

The bartender cautions Caleb to watch what he says, and Caleb argues, "I didn't insult her. I don't even know that woman. You a chivalrous defender of womanhood, mister bartender man?"

The bartender says that he thinks Caleb would be happier in a different bar, where he could get himself another complimentary birthday drink. When Caleb shows no indication of moving, the bartender tells him to leave or he will have him removed from the premises.

"Okay, okay, I'll leave. I'm not gonna give you any trouble. This isn't like sitting in a comfortable theatre, watching uplifting performances, is it? You know, I auditioned for the role of a bartender once, years ago."

"Good for you."

"I didn't get the role, but you can't get every role you go after. You wouldn't have gotten the role, either, from what I've been seeing this evening, mister bartender man."

"Go to Hell," the bartender says, and turns his back to Caleb.

"What kind of way is that to talk to a customer on his birthday?" Caleb says as he gets off his stool. He pauses, looks around the bar, then continues: "Go to Hell isn't exactly the most original line, and your delivery isn't going to bring the house down. You think all this drinking and liquid chatter and thick loneliness is heavenly? This isn't the only bar in town. A man has to deal with his loneliness somewhere, doesn't he?" And then Caleb exits, a little wobbly, but as well timed and effective an exit as he ever made when he was a stage actor.