The Underground (part two)

The interaction with Colleen occupied John’s thoughts for the rest of the afternoon.  Maybe last night had been a dream.  He might have seen that woman at his building before, even overheard – or misheard – her name.  Somehow all of that worked into his dream.

Perhaps she had a twin?  That could explain it.  Colleen and Cailín. And Colleen simply didn’t know about him.  Just a simple misunderstanding.  But she hadn’t heard of the club.  The one her twin owned?  That was less likely.

It had been so real.  Even now he could feel Cailín’s head on his chest.  Smell her hair. It couldn’t have been a dream.  But a twin seemed impossible, too.  Maybe she just didn’t want to admit to knowing him right then and there.  But Colleen’s confusion was convincing.

No matter how he thought about it, it didn’t make any sense.  He tried to focus on work to take his mind off of the whole thing, but to no avail.  Everyone else had left for the day.  Normally he would work well into the evening to make up for the time lost in the morning, but he couldn’t get anything done.

On the way back to his apartment, he went past The Underground.  It was there; at least that much hadn’t been a dream.  But it was dark and closed.  He couldn’t check to see if Cailín was there.  See if she was real.

At home, he sat in his recliner with the television on.  The noise helped keep his mind from wandering too much.  There was nothing for him to do, so distraction was the best he could hope for.

He woke up hours later, surprised sleep had found him.  Groggy and a bit disoriented, he showered as much as to wake up as to make up for rushing that morning. The grogginess lifted some, so he finished getting ready and headed back to The Underground.

The same doorman waited for him, and, without being asked, John handed over his ID.  There was no conversation this time, and he was waved inside.  The place was already filling up, and it was still relatively quiet.  She was nowhere to be seen.

He found an open seat at the bar and waited for the bartender.  When the man finally came over, John asked, “Is the owner around?”

The bartender just shrugged, offering no sign that he would be of help.  John just ordered a beer and waited.

Time passed at its own pace.  He tried to drink slowly, but he felt some pressure to keep ordering.  Being alone in a new place made him want to be a good customer, so that he wouldn’t be seen as just taking up space.

“You came back.”

He hadn’t seen her arrive.  She was just next to him, smiling.

“Hi.  You’re talking to me.”

“Of course, why wouldn’t I talk to you?”

No indication that it had been her today.  “I just wasn’t sure you’d be here tonight,” he managed.

She laughed. “I’m always here.”

“I thought I saw you earlier today.”

She frowned a bit. “Impossible. We weren’t open earlier.”

“No. Not here. Outside my office building.”

“When was this?”

“Around noon.”

“Definitely not me.”

John wasn’t sure what to make of this exchange. He believed it wasn’t her.  But there was still something about her responses.

“Do you have a twin sister?”

Another laugh. Still kind. But more, too. Uncertainty?

“No. I’m an only child. No sisters or brothers. You said this was noon?”

“Yes.” Why did she think the time was important?

“And you thought you saw me?”

“Yeah, but she said she didn’t know me.”

“Well, it wasn’t me, but…” She trailed off and stared past him at nothing.

“But what?”

She looked at him with an intensity he hadn’t felt from her before. “You were thinking of me at noon?”

Suddenly he felt self-conscious.  Did she think he had become obsessed with her? Had he become obsessed with her? No, he had just seen her, or thought he had.  It wasn’t that he was spending the morning dwelling on the night before.

“Well, only because I thought I had run into you.”

“So seeing this woman made you remember me. But not before, right?”

“Well, no. I mean it’s not like I had forgotten you.  I mean I enjoyed our time together last night.”

“Look, this is kind of important. Had you thought about me before you saw her or not? I’m not going to be mad if you didn’t.  I just need to know what happened.”

“I don’t understand.”

In spite of her reassuring smile, he felt unsteady. He had thought all of this had to have a simple explanation. But her reactions told a different story.

“I know. And I’ll try to explain, but I need to know if you remembered me before you saw her.”

He tried to think back, but the confusion was making it difficult.  Of course he remembered her. But there was no clear memory of thinking about her before he had arrived at his office.

“I… I’m not sure. What’s going on?” It was the beer. He had had too much to drink, and it was making the room swim. That was it, he decided. But he didn’t believe it.

She chewed on her lip a bit as she considered him. “Come with me,” she said finally.

He followed her through a door and up a flight of stairs to an office. She motioned for him to sit on a short couch as she poured a couple of drinks. The office itself was neatly kept. One wall hidden by bookshelves, the others were covered with music posters. Handing him a glass, she sat in an armchair across a small table from him.

“I want to ask you some questions, but in asking them, I make the answers useless. So I don’t know what to do.”

“Why not just tell me what’s happening?”

“Because that might spoil everything.”

“Spoil everything?”

“I should probably just ask you to leave. That would be the easiest solution. But I don’t want to do that.”

“You’re not making any sense.”

“Yeah. I know.”

He waited for her to say more, to say something he could understand. But she just sat, lost in her own thoughts. As the silence wore on, he felt increasingly awkward, unsure of what to say or do. He took a sip from his glass. The whiskey burned his throat in that pleasant way that made it a calming drink.

As though that had been the signal she was waiting for, Cailín spoke. “This place is supposed to be a place to get away from the rest of the world. What happens out there is supposed out there. And what happens here is just for her. You seem to have dragged last night out into the world and brought some of the world back here. Do you understand?”

“Wait. Are you saying that was you today? That you just won’t acknowledge me during the day?”

“No. That’s not it. At least, not exactly. The two places are separate. That wasn’t me. And it shouldn’t have been you. And that’s the problem.”

“I still don’t get it.”

“Yeah. Please finish your drink.”

He saw no reason not to, so he drained his glass.

*     *     *

John woke up early, at least for him. It was the first time in as long as he could remember that he felt rested. In an unusually good mood, he laughed when he thought about how surprised his boss would be with him arriving before ten.

He was not disappointed, then, when his boss remarked that he would need to make a note of this day on his calendar. He offered to treat John to lunch. The morning went by quickly as he got caught up on a number of important matters.

It was only after he was outside on his way to lunch that he remembered Cailín. He saw the bus he had taken yesterday drive off, and it reminded him of the encounter in this very courtyard yesterday. His time at The Underground came flooding back as well. He knew he hadn’t remembered any of it before that moment, though he didn’t know how he could have forgotten.

All of his questions, all of the confusion, came back in a rush, and it made enjoying lunch impossible. His boss, however, didn’t notice the onset of John’s sullenness and seemed to have a good time. After lunch, John returned to work and managed to still get some things done. Uncharacteristically, he left when everyone else did and managed to smile at his boss’s joke about it. He promised not to make a habit of it.

Instead of going back to his apartment, he went straight to The Underground. As he expected, it wasn’t open, so he sat down at the top of the stairs to wait.

He almost didn’t see her walk by. She hadn’t noticed him at the top of the stairs. He stood up and grabbed her by the arm.

“Excuse me! Take your hand off of me!” She was yelling, trying to draw the attention of other people.

So this was Colleen. “I thought you hadn’t heard of this place.”

A flash of recognition crossed her face. “You’re the man who accosted me yesterday!” Still yelling. “I told you to leave me alone!”

“You said you hadn’t heard of The Underground, yet here you are.”

“I still haven’t heard of it!” When John pointed out the sign, she continued yelling. “I live in this building, but I had no idea there was a bar down here!”

“How could you not…”

“Excuse me. What is the trouble here?” A police officer had walked up and was staring right at John.

“Officer, thank goodness. This man started bothering me yesterday, and now he’s followed me to my home.”

“Take your hand off of the lady’s arm.”

John hadn’t realized he was still holding her and let go immediately. “Officer, this is just…”

“I don’t want to hear it. Shut your mouth. Ma’am?”

“I’ve never seen this man before yesterday. He seems to think we know each other.”

“You want to file a complaint?”

She glared at John for several seconds. “Yes.”

The officer put John in handcuffs and called for a squad car as he took Colleen’s statement. He told her to come down to the station to finish the report. John was taken in, fingerprinted, photographed, and put in a cell.

The Underground (part one)

It’s one thing to hate insomnia, and another thing to have to live it. John had moved past hating and on to accepting it as a normal part of his life. Rather than dreading going to bed, he simply incorporated the extra hours into his daily routine. Sleep came when it did, and when it didn’t, he would walk around the city. It was a chance to see faces of the world he would otherwise remain ignorant of.

Tonight was no different. His wandering brought him to a club below street level. The Underground. Perhaps a bit too literal. But it was something new. John’s beard and rough skin clearly put him in his late twenties heading towards forty, but the doorman checked his ID anyway. In fact, he spent more time on it than seemed reasonable. Eventually, he handed it back.

“Haven’t seen you before.” His voice was deep and gravelly, but not threatening.

“Nope,” John agreed. “First time here.”

The doorman kept eyeing him. “You sure you want to go in?”

“Why wouldn’t I?”

The doorman shrugged as though the reason were obvious. “Go ahead. Enjoy your night.”

John wasn’t sure what to make of the man’s comments, but he wouldn’t let it him stop him. If anything, it made him determined to check the place out. He walked through the door, making sure it closed behind him to cut off the doorman’s gaze.

Inside, the place was dark and crowded. In spite of the number of people, it was surprisingly quiet. Music – he guessed dance music from the late 80s – played over the sound system, but even it was not overly loud.

He found an open stool at the bar, and sat down. After catching the bartender’s eye, he ordered a beer and looked around the room.  Almost immediately, he noticed a woman down the bar looking directly at him.  There was no smile, just a look of mild curiosity.  Long, straight, dark hair.  Loose fitting white shirt.  Jeans.  Attractive, but not making any attempt to draw attention to herself. He tried to ignore her staring and continue his survey of the other customers.

It really was an odd place. It looked like it was meant to be a nightclub, but everyone acted like it was a small, unknown hole in the wall. A place you’d go to for a secret rendezvous. With so many people, however, it could hardly be that.

“I haven’t seen you before.”

The woman was next to him. She must have asked the person who had been sitting there to move.

“You’re the second person to tell me that.” He tried to act nonplussed by her continued interest.

“Well, it’s true.”

“I suppose it is.” So far, this was the only thing that made him uncomfortable. Maybe the doorman was warning him about her.

“My name is Cailín.”

“Hi, I’m John.” Whatever was making him feel uncertain, he didn’t want to be rude.

“John. That’s a nice name.”

“Nothing fancy. Your name is intriguing, however.”

She laughed. It was a kind sound, but he didn’t understand what had prompted it. “I say something funny?”

“No. Or at least, I know you didn’t mean to. My dad gave me the name. He didn’t have much of an imagination. It means ‘girl.'”

“Oh. Yeah. I guess I can see why that would be funny. Still ‘Cailín’ sounds better than ‘girl.'”

“I guess so. I hadn’t thought of it that way.”

His early unease dissipated, he found her pleasant company. “So what’s so special about this place? The doorman seemed to want me to stay away.”

“Him? He just likes to be picky about who comes here. Probably likes the power too much. As for The Underground, it’s just somewhere people can get away from everything. Here, your other life doesn’t matter. Nobody here knows what you do, or what responsibilities you have. None of that belongs here.”

“Sounds nice.” And it did. A place to escape. “But there are lots of places you can do that, aren’t there?”

She laughed again. Still friendly. “Perhaps, but I don’t own those other places.”

“I didn’t realize . . .”

“Why should you? You haven’t been here before.”

“I guess I wouldn’t expect the owner to just be sitting at the bar like any other customer.”

“Ah. Well, I created a place I would want to go. No sense sitting in an office when this is where I would want to be. Besides, it runs itself. Not much for me to do.”

“I see.”

“No, you don’t. Not yet. But I understand your confusion. For now, just enjoy yourself. That’s what this is here for.”

“Alright.” John expected her to leave, now that she had introduced herself, but she stayed next to him. Her presence refused to be ignored, and he couldn’t stop paying attention to her.

A new song started, and Cailín suddenly grabbed his hand. “Dance with me.”

Maybe it had been a request, but he found himself dragged halfway to the dance floor before he even fully understood what was happening. He decided he didn’t mind and followed her lead. No one else was dancing, but she obviously didn’t care. She leaned against him, only a little shorter than he was. Even while he wasn’t sure how to take all of this, she betrayed no awkwardness. She seemed to be in this moment with no thought beyond it. He found himself feeling envious of her ability to relax into now.

As the song came to an end, she took a step back and looked into his eyes. “Thank you.” Kissing him lightly on the cheek, she turned and walked back to the bar.

*     *     *

John didn’t remember how he got home when he awoke the next day. Light streamed into his window, the sun already high in the morning sky. It was after eleven. Grateful once again that his boss was understanding, he quickly got dressed and caught a bus downtown to his office.

From the building, a number of people were streaming out to grab lunch. It was a typical sight for John. What was new was seeing Cailín walking out of the building, too.

Without hesitating, he walked up to her. “Hi, Cailín. Why are you down here?”

Her expression held only confusion. “I’m sorry? Have we met?”

Now it was his turn not to understand. “It’s me, John. We met last night at The Underground.”

“I’m sorry. I’ve never heard of The Underground, and we have never met.”

“But . . .”

“And my name is not Cailín, it’s Colleen. Now please leave me alone, or I will call the police.”

Nothing about her body language suggested she was joking. She genuinely did not know who he is. Maybe she really wasn’t Cailín. But he was so sure.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bother you. Please excuse me.” He walked quickly into the building and took the elevator to his office.

Teiwaz – Warrior Self

The rune is a simple arrow pointing up.  It signals the spiritual warrior, the energy of such a warrior.  Thus did it become, in my mind, the warrior self.  In this sense, we are all spiritual warriors.  We all do battle with the self.

The hardest fight is with the self.  Overcoming your impulses and your own doubt is the only challenge that really matters.  Wrestling with God is easy by comparison.  There is nothing anyone can do to you, not even God, that can be more hurtful than what you can do to yourself.  You know your biggest fears, your deepest doubts, more thoroughly than anyone else does.  You know them from the inside and can use them against yourself in ways others cannot even fathom.

It is a solitary struggle.  Try as hard as you might, you cannot escape yourself.  And all the help others offer can do nothing about the nagging worry your inner self can bring to bear in opposition to you.  At 3 AM you have no one else to help you fight for yourself.

Even if you win, the challenge is always waiting in the wings to be rejoined.  Every setback risks an “I told you so.”  And yet, without the fight, without the willingness to wrestle with the self, what is left?  What else would we have?

Life is about pushing forward, about bringing something from nothing.  We begin as nothing and struggle to make something.  It is against the self that we must work.  Though we fail, it may be enough to know that at least we did not give up.

Writing on the Wall

Three words were written on the cement barrier near the Student Union’s bike rack.  Each letter was drawn carefully in pink chalk and outlined in blue.  They would have been bright against the dull grey at first, but the color had been whittled away by the wind after a few days.  It didn’t say who they were to or who they were from.

She wondered if the person the words had been meant for had seen them.  Did they know who sent it?  Did they know it had been aimed at them?

Three little words.  “I miss you.”  It was so specific, so personal.  Perhaps a parent had left it there for their son or daughter, just starting college, so they would see it and feel a little less homesick.  Or maybe a significant other had written it at the end of a weekend visit from a school in another state.  They must have known the person it was meant for would see it.  Recognize the lettering.  Know it was for them.  She hoped so.

Or maybe it was the universe itself, taking the opportunity to talk to her.  Maybe she was missed.  It seemed unlikely, but why not?  After all, here she was, reading the words.  The message could be for her after all.  That would be nice.  It would be nice to think someone missed her.  Even if the person who had written them was directing them at someone else, the universe put her here, right now, so she would see them.

As crazy as it seemed, she smiled a little.  She was missed.  It didn’t matter by whom.  All that mattered was that it was true.  And she decided that it was.