As a blandly dressed woman passes in front of him, he feels all of his internal systems fail. His heart is erratic, his breathing shallow, his hands are shaking and clammy, and his brain seems scrambled. He can't comprehend his surroundings. In his hazy, unnerving state, this haggard, yet innately handsome, woman slowly becomes the only thing in focus.
She seems profoundly uncomfortable. Her shoulders are pulled in. One hand is tightly clutching the strap of her handbag. It didn't seem like she was protecting the bag so much as protecting herself from human contact. Her eyes are aimed at the floor. Her expression is pained. Something compelled her to overcome a very strong aversion to being in public, but she's struggling to commit to being here. She looks as if she could turn and retreat at the slightest provocation.
He has encountered people like this before. An empath, he is sensitive to the emotional state of others. He's taught himself how to minimize the impact of those encounters by mentally transforming them into the barely perceptible brush of the gauzy wings of a passing butterfly.
That practice is failing here. He's never felt so devastated by someone else's presence. He is stunned and physically unable to move aside and to let her pass. As she mumbles, "excuse me," she glances up and makes eye contact. He might have expected her to break that connection instantaneously; for her to recoil from that kind of personal contact. Instead, she holds his gaze.
She recognizes him immediately. That beautiful face, prettier than many women. Those soulful eyes. The first eyes she can bear to meet in 14 years. After all that time of feeling untethered and lost in the dark storm of life, she suddenly feels anchored. The winds that have ravaged her are becalmed. A ray of light is dissipating her darkness. Her compass steadies and she can head for home.
She can tell that he does not recognize her. She steadies herself and waits. During the wait, she sighs with so much relief that her entire body language shifts. Her shoulders relax. She lets go of her handbag. Her legs feel stronger and her chin lifts slightly. After a few moments, she reaches out her arms and places her hands gently on his shoulders, with the familiarity of a friend about to give you some warmly intended, but hard to hear, advice. She is telepathically communicating, “you can do this. You can see”
He regains some composure as he witnesses the changes in her presence. He then notices her newsboy cap and feels the singularity of that gaze. With a lightening strike of clarity, he knows. No one else ever penetrated his finely honed defenses. “It’s her.”
He falls apart. He had held himself together through his years of distress with a forced composure. He had harnessed his anger and pain by sheer determination to channel it through his art and keep the visceral experience of the emotions locked away. He kept it where no one else could touch it. He had felt obligated to achieve the independence to search for her. To have a stable life to invite her back into. He had focused on getting through. He wouldn’t accept anyone else into this internal space, until she could be there. Now, all the pent up anxiety and despair came crashing through his reinforced vault. He would have collapsed, if she didn’t hold him up.
Standing there, in a random neighborhood pub, blocking people as they tried to step in through the entrance door and around the logjam created by the corner of the bar, they embrace, melt into each other and begin sobbing in spasms that seem to never end. Impatient newcomers push them aside. Most of the people there cannot take their eyes off of them. The inhibition of their emotions generates a raw vulnerability that is somehow enviable. Everyone is curious, but also a bit embarrassed at their own compulsion to experience this vicariously.
The embrace is sloppy. Her handbag has fallen to the floor. His sketchbook is splayed at their feet, as well. Shoulders are soaked with tears. Sleeves are covered in snot. Shirts are disheveled. As always, her cap remains undisturbed; the only detail that does not appear spent and bedraggled. After an undetermined amount of time, a nearby pair stands up from their table, walks over, hands them napkins and guides them to the seats they’ve just vacated.
The bartender brings them water and draft beer. The pub owner places plates of food in front of them. No one has a clue as to what’s going on. Everyone who has remained in the pub, though, feels called to create a protective circle and take care of them.
They quietly eat, holding hands. Words are hiding in another universe due to a sense of utter inadequacy in this world.
The crowd is attentively ignoring them. There is quiet murmuring of feigned distraction everywhere, but it is obvious that folks are waiting with anticipation. The pub has become an insulated bubble outside of time and no one wants to leave it. They want to savor whatever this is. Cautiously, someone asks, “will you tell us the story?”
In her typical direct, unadorned manner, she replies, “I haven’t seen my brother since I was 13 years old”
A silence, filled with an unruly orchestra of sentiments, sets in as an unusually early snow begins to fall.