Vieux Carré

~ Rebecca Ruvinsky

I didn’t expect to find him at a bar. It had been a long time since I had seen him last, but as soon as my eyes fell upon him, my heart stilled first in instant recognition—then quickened.

He was ready behind the counter when I approached the bar and slid into an open seat. I watched him work, mixing and shaking and stirring drinks together, expertly and elegantly carrying out his craft. He moved without hesitation, always reaching for the next bottle, always knowing where it was. He kept his eyes down, completely focused, yet I could still sense his attention on me.

When he slid me a drink, he finally met my gaze.

“Blue eyes this time?” I said as I lifted the glass to my lips. Calling them blue couldn’t capture the true depth of color. They reminded me of the color of the sky from when I had learned of my mother’s death—no, the color of the ocean from when my sister was lost among the waves—no, the color of the tie my husband had been wearing when he had—

Ah. He was already getting into my head. I lowered my eyes, taking a sip from my drink.

“I think they flatter me,” he answered, his hands still in motion even as he stood in front of me. I let my gaze wander over his body. He had aged with grace, as attractive as the last time I had seen him, tall and slim with high cheekbones and long, beautiful fingers. His bartender’s uniform, sleek black against his pale skin, fit him like a well-tailored suit.

“Quite so, but let me handle the flattery,” I murmured, sipping at my drink again.

His lips twitched into a slight smile. “As long as I can return the favor.”

It was impossible to look away from him, a controlled chaos in the making of drinks, his hands moving hypnotically, with confidence in every gesture.

He finished up a martini with a twirl of lemon before sliding it over to someone else at the bar, who turned away too swiftly for me to see their face. “How’s the drink?” he asked, drawing my attention back.

I’d never had a better one, but I just shrugged. “It’s good. Strong and smooth. What is it?”

“Vieux Carré.” He started shaking up another drink. “It comes from New Orleans. Have you ever been?”

I took another slow sip of my cocktail before answering. “No, I haven’t. Perhaps I’ll book a ticket for tomorrow. Top one-hundred places to visit before you die, or so they say.”

He tipped his head down slightly, so I could see his smile without even lifting my eyes. “Tomorrow? A lot could happen between tonight and tomorrow.”

“Like someone poisoning my drink?” I asked dryly, lifting it in a toast to him before downing what was left.

He whisked the empty glass away as soon as it touched the counter, ever the vigilant bartender. “Nothing so gauche as that.”

“Then if I live through the night, you’ll know where to find me next.” As if poison would affect me by now.

“Oh, I’m always keeping my eye on you.” He began pouring bottles into a mixing glass. A dash of bitters swirled into ice and a haze of amber liquids, all twirled together with deft hands. “You go to so many fascinating places.”

“What can I say? I have a long bucket list to check off.”

The drink was strained into a short glass, then topped with a cherry. He slid it to me. “How long could it be?”

“A million and one experiences, of course. And as you so kindly pointed out,” I ran my finger around the rim of my new glass, “no time like the present.”

“Then where am I on that list?” he asked, his voice dropping down to a purr.

I couldn’t help the grin, but disguised it by tossing down the drink—just as good as the first time. “Not to fret. I’m saving you for last.”

“That’s what they all say, but,” he leaned forward, resting his elbows on the counter, “most never have that choice. You shouldn’t, either. How do you do it?”

“You must enjoy chasing me as much as I enjoy being chased.” His proximity made me feel more alive than ever. I knew he was looking right at me. Sweet adrenaline flooded my veins, more intoxicating than the drinks, and I fought the impulse to run my tongue over my lips.

He pulled away. “Every chase must end eventually.”

“I’m more for enjoying the journey rather than the destination.” I drew in a slow, sweet breath of air. “And if you could catch me, you would have.”

He turned a glass around in his hands, looking down at it. Relief and disappointment mingled at his eyes turning away from me. “Well, that’s the interesting part, isn’t it?” he murmured. “I’ve followed you for so far, and so long, and yet you’re still sitting here.”

“And yet I’m still sitting here,” I echoed in a whisper. I couldn’t see the expression on his face, but he stepped away, and I let my attention wander away from him, leaning back against my barstool to look around.

It was a classier place than I normally went to, all blacks and golds and greys with soft, dim lighting throughout. It was comfortable while still looking exclusive, fancy in a way that was completely effortless. People were all around, filling up the tables and booths and barstools, but it didn’t feel crowded—or loud, for that matter, only a general murmur of conversation reaching my ears. And the people themselves . . . They were all strangers, their faces indistinct, hazy in the lighting, almost blurry . . .

The sound of ripping paper drew my attention back to the bar. He was back, placing a receipt in front of me, and as I reached for it, our fingertips grazed. His skin was cool to the touch, yet my pulse raced. I wanted to kiss him, see if his lips were as cold as his hands, yet I couldn’t even look into his eyes.

Instead, I looked at the receipt as he returned to mixing his drinks. It was a long list, longer than my two drinks, and handwritten in a quick scrawl. I trailed my fingers over the letters.

Instead of drinks, there were deaths. Instead of prices, there were dates.

So, so many.

My hands trembled as I read it.

Car crash, 03/12. Mugging, 05/22. Stairs, 02/07. Flu, 08/10. Car crash, 10/14. Choking, 09/13.

The list went on and on.

“Such a ripe soul. So many beautiful deaths I had planned for you,” he said. He was right in front of me, cleaning a glass, but I couldn’t bring myself to see if he was smiling or not. I knew him. I saw him in the reflection of the glassy eyes of those I had loved, saw him while my soul longed for him, because my soul was done growing and was ready to go home, wanting to be plucked from my body by his long, pale fingers . . .

I set the receipt on the counter, hiding my hands in my lap. “What can I say? I love a challenge.”

“Ah, for the both of us, and what a challenge you are. You have escaped all of my attempts, outstepped me at every turn. I try, but it never changes a thing.”

“What? Still pretending that you actually want to catch me?” I teased. My heart pounded in my ears, fear drowned out by exhilaration.

He rested his hands on the countertop, and I found I preferred the motion to this stillness. Since I didn’t want to look at his eyes, I found myself staring at his lips. I wondered how close love and death were intertwined, wondered if his lips were salty, wondered if he was made from the salt of everyone’s tears.

“I know you,” he said. “I know the experiences resting within you, waiting to be released. Love and grief, laughter and loss, and all the moments in-between. I know how you’ve cried, whether from sorrow or sheer happiness, and thought of me. I know your soul is ready, that you have lived all you were meant to live. So how are you still here, resisting me?” His voice was calm and soft. He had always had a mild smile and gentle eyes, I remembered; he was made of patience.

There was no loving him, but there was longing. I wanted to look into his eyes again, get lost in that wide blue sky. That sky—those waves—his tie—now all contained in a glance, in his eyes. I wondered what color his eyes would be if I looked up now.

“I thought you had taken enough from me.” My smile was colored with all the memories of a life that was now long behind me, but never in the past. “No, not thought. I decided you had taken enough from me, and I learned that there is life in defiance. I refused to be taken.”

I sensed him looking me over again, a careful and deliberate scrutiny that narrowed me down to bones, blood, and a beating heart. Goosebumps prickled my skin.

“Defiance that can sustain a life would overtake all else there is,” he said.

“How would you know?” I lifted my head to match his stare, baring my neck. He studied me with gentle grey eyes, almost absent of color. His smile was sad and mild, and he was so still. I continued, quiet and sure, “You’ve never looked death in the face and refused to be whisked away.”

He huffed out a breath that may have been a chuckle, but didn’t pull his eyes away from mine. Was he as entranced by me as I was by him?

“Even you cannot live forever.”

“It’s not about trying to live. It’s about making sure not to die. I know how I would miss that thrill.” I paused, holding his gaze. “As I’m sure you would, too.”

He dropped his eyes from mine first, reaching forward to take the receipt. I surprised myself by putting a hand over the back of his, and he met my eyes again.

Blue like unshed tears, like gentle waves, like seeing the sky for the first time in a week.

I lifted my hand from his, then rose from my chair. “Thanks for the drink.”

“I’ll put it on your tab,” he said, and whisked the receipt away.

 

Rebecca Ruvinsky is a student, poet, and emerging writer in Orlando, Florida. She has kept a streak of writing a poem every day since 2016, with work published or forthcoming in Wizards in Space, Prospectus Literary, Sylvia Magazine, From the Farther Trees, and others. She loves watching rocket launches, reading late into the night, and finding the magical in the mundane.

She can be found on Twitter @writeruvinsky.

 [ issue 1 : winter 2021 ]