by Alex Papadopulos

Note: This story has previously been published on Africans.

He walked into the bar--the same bar he visited every Friday after work to meet friends and colleagues. It had become a ritual of healing that had begun when his fiancé had moved out of his house. The bar was friendlier and warmer than the empty house, and at least it didn't remind him of her. His tie was loose around his now open collar, the last week's worth of late nights had taken its toll, and he couldn't hide the lack of sleep on his face.

He moved over to his regular table, still empty, but he was used to it; his friends were always late. He preferred it this way though, he had some time to get one or two drinks in him while giving him the chance to catch up on the other regulars' lives. All by observing, of course--he would never spark off a conversation. The waiter had his first beer poured in a chilled glass and waiting on the table for him. His days were like clockwork lately. As he finished the first pint in record time, the waiter lifted his hand from the other side of the bar, signalling that another one was on the way.

He didn't protest.

He could never quite believe how being in a room with so many people talking, drinking and having a good time could feel so lonely. The isolation was suffocating; he felt as if he were in a glass box only able to look out.

All so fake, he thought. Although he yearned to be involved, wanting nothing more than to stand up and have an idle chat with a stranger about his mundane week, he couldn't bring himself to it.

His was the only clean table with free seats by the time his friends walked in. They were joking around, laughing with faces red from the couple of drinks already finished at the "warm-up" venue. He stood up, adjusted his jacket and gave them a ridiculously fake smile. He extended a hand, but before he could utter a single word, they had all sat down and shouted their first order to the waiter. He was left standing in what felt like a lifetime. Sitting down, he loosened up a bit and listened to their conversation. One shooter down, and he was beginning to feel a bit more comfortable, becoming more and more a part of the group.

Sadly, his friends preferred him this way.

In his drunken state, he became more like the man he used to be, before the break up. She was a stunning woman and full of love for him. The whole relationship ended in a classic tale of newfound love.

"True love," she said.

It had taken him a month to get back to work and deal with the fact that she had gone, now married to a man he had never met.

It was after the fifth round of drinks that he excused himself and took a walk around to get some air. Being the regular observer, he was used to the crowd and felt a certain sense of confidence with the people around him. He knew everyone, not by name or profession, but by actions. He could describe almost every person in the bar, who they were seeing, what car they drove, and what their drinks of choice were. But as he made his way towards the balcony, he noticed a new group.

There were not many companies in the office park so he found it strange that he did not recognise anyone in the group. He figured they must be from an international office and in town on business. He stood leaning against the railing, staring at the sunset, and realised that he was alone. It was times like these that he thought about her most.

As he walked back into the room, he saw the group again. He stopped and leaned against a pillar, trying to figure them out. There were four women and one man, all drinking cocktails. As he watched, he noticed her, walking towards the huddle of five.

She was dressed in a smart business suit with a knee-length skirt and high heels, just short enough to remain classy. Her long brown hair flowed behind her as time seemed to slow down, the music stopped, and the roars of laughter dulled.

The universe only existed in his eyes for a short moment.

He started walking towards the bathroom as she stopped at the new group, staring the entire way. As he walked past them, he caught a glimpse of her face with her perfect skin, striking blue eyes accentuated by her rimless glasses and make-up applied as if she had a team of artists at her demand. She turned her head as he walked a little too close. He quickly turned the other way, avoiding all eye contact.

He made it to the bathroom unscathed. He seemed to be on fast forward, almost as if he needed to catch back up to real time. It took him a couple of minutes washing his hands and staring in the mirror to gather his thoughts, feeling remarkably sober. He remembered the last time he felt this way, and it was a very long time ago.

He returned to the table, not even remembering walking from the bathroom. He sat down and looked over at her again, hoping that she would look over and notice him. His heart was beating uncontrollably, his usual appetite after so many drinks stifled by the butterflies in his gut. The voices of his friends had turned to a monotonous drumming in his ears that he just wanted to get away from. He kept nodding and agreeing with the comments just so that he would not have to contribute.

His mind was racing wondering about her, what she did for a living, why she was here, where was her husband? Surely a woman this beautiful cannot be single?

He managed to make it home safely, realising that he was still really drunk after stumbling onto the bus. His night was marred by the occasional waking and thoughts of her in his head. Light sleep dreams that made no sense at all. He opened his eyes frequently, not knowing for how long he had been asleep, if at all. He glanced over at his bedside clock; he was sure it was time to get up, but the bright red characters on the clock flashed 3:00 a.m. He turned away from the red light, facing two pillows, still neatly in place on the empty side of the bed. He wondered where it had all gone wrong and how he could have changed it. Forgetting about the evening, he fell asleep.

He woke up in a cold sweat; the nightmares had begun again. He found himself staring at the clock--it was only 4:30 a.m.

His weekend was uneventful, procrastinating and lazing around the house, watching DVDs and eating take-away pizza. He was happy that the maid was coming in on Monday morning to clean the place. Settling into bed on Sunday evening with his book, he realised that he hadn't left his flat all weekend.

The alarm sounded, and he woke up with a fright. He looked outside the window, and it was still dark, but he was used to these early hours--he had been since she left. It took him half an hour to get himself out of bed, the comfort and warmth seeming like a much better option than his Monday morning management meeting.

As usual, he was the first person in the office, finding it easier to work in the quiet of the empty open-plan room without the usual daytime distractions. It would be two hours before anyone else arrived, and he cherished this time of the day.

Before long, the call had been given for the meeting to begin, and he quickly finished off his last report and rushed a cup of coffee before moving into the boardroom. These meetings had become a mundane Monday morning ritual that served no purpose except to create the illusion to the general staff that senior management was busy and actually had some work to do.

Something was different as he walked into the boardroom; three additional chairs had been neatly arranged at the head of the table. This was always a purely internal meeting and strictly only for management-level executives. As the usual staff sat down, the meeting started with the three chairs still empty.

An announcement was made just before adjourning that a short presentation would be made, supposedly by another regional office.

The three women walked in on cue, and his heart immediately jumped. It was her, leading the presentation, dressed as impeccably as she had been last week, looking even more angelic through sober eyes. He didn't hear a word during the presentation, the graphs and figures on the whiteboard behind her blended into a blur of colours. He did however, hear her name.

The rest of his week flew by as usual--early mornings, late evenings, and days filled with the usual list of issues that kept his mind off of his empty house. He was busy enough to not think about her again, except for the few minutes before he fell asleep. It was the only time he had time to think anymore, although he managed to fight that as well with sleeping tablets these days.

It was Friday again, and he was at the bar, following his usual ritual. This time, however, he had made the effort to try and look a little smarter. His tie was still around his neck, and he had managed to keep his shirt tucked in.

When his friends arrived, he made an effort to get into the conversation, feeling a new sense of confidence building up from his anxiety and excitement. He joked and laughed along with his friends for the first time in months.

Tonight he was ready to talk to his new mystery woman; he knew if he didn't do it tonight, he would probably never have the courage again. As he chatted with his friends, he realised that it was getting late, later than the time she walked into the bar a week ago.

He decided to take a walk. He moved to the balcony again, not smoking this time but rather popping one more breath mint into his mouth. He stayed there for two minutes, unable to stay in one place in case he missed her. He walked back into the bar and realised it was clearing up. The venue was always used as a watering hole before everyone moved on--some went home, some went out for dinner, and the rest usually visited one of the many local clubs.

She didn't arrive. He quickly finished his last drink at the bar; everyone else had already moved on.

He didn't show his anger as he walked slowly to the bus stop. The ride home was quiet as he stared onto the busy streets. It was a typical summer's evening, and there were a lot of people walking on the street--children skateboarding, families bonding, and couples hand-in-hand.

Opening his front door, he turned the lights on and threw his jacket over the nearest chair. He walked into the bedroom, took his two sleeping tablets lying on the bedside table, and looked over at the bed. The photo of her on the bedside table seemed to stare back at him with a coldness he had almost become fond of.