Alia kept her eyes closed tight. No longer could she see, she could only feel and when she reached out, she knew her hand glistened by the way her skin strangely tingled. Behind her eyelids, she could visibly sense the sparkling, dazzling shadows, of every calming hue on the spectrum. It was a feeling and a blind sight, which needed no validation; a beautiful idea, but one which was skewed by reality and, ultimately, would never actually see the light of day. Instead, her thoughts sank to the bottom of her stomach and rained heavily on her skin, pelting down like stones on flesh, which would stain her mind and soul for eternity.
Alia knew she had to remove herself from the situation she was in, so she dreamed. And in that hollow moment, she created a man with a kind heart. She wished so hard that she could see him in her mind’s eye. She wished for him to save her, for him to appear, and for him to make everything alright. He was valiant and beautiful. He walked into rooms and created silence. He followed through, he sang, he smiled with his hands, and he swam upstream. He was everything, and, yet could never be as close or equally as distant.
She had always wanted love. She needed it more than ever, so despite the awful moment taking from her something she would never get back, it also instilled in her a defiance and a new outlook that she would never know how to live without.
Alia tried to relax her body, and put all of her energy into keeping her eyes closed because she did not want to open them to the sight of blood and the feeling of pain. She never thought anything like this would happen to her. She was always careful, she never took risks, and her life had been secure because of that, but tonight, fate defied all rational conclusions. Tonight, irrefutable suffering would prevail.
“Are you sure you want to go?” Belinda asked, standing tall in black heels, blue jeans, and a black shirt with one hand on her hip and the other shaking the ice in a glass filled with vodka.
“Why? You don’t?” Alia asked in response.
“I think I’m getting a headache, but…, I’ll go for a while,” she replied.
“You know the type of day I’ve had today right? I mean, we can stay here and just relax if you prefer, but we came all this way,” Alia stated.
Belinda rubbed her head and took another sip of her drink,
“You’re right. The drive from the city was way too long to waste the night. Getting out will probably do me good. Besides, you need some relief from that asshole boss of yours. What’s his name? Jerk?” Belinda asked, smiling to herself at her attempt at humor.
“His name is Mark!” Alia said, placing her second shoe on and standing up to straighten her outfit.
“He’s not that bad, you know. He’s just a bit…,” Alia stopped to find the best word to describe her mean boss.
“Ass-holey!” Belinda stated loudly, grinning widely.
“Alright Belinda, he’s awful, but a lot of people have bosses like Mark. To be honest, if it weren’t for Lisa, I don’t know how I’d get through the days. I just have to find a way of dealing with him, that’s all. Some days are just worse than others, you know?”
“I sure do,” Belinda said, nodding her head in agreement.
Alia and Belinda grew up in nearby neighborhoods and went to the same schools. They both, then went on to study Psychology at the same university, but Belinda dropped out after discovering she was pregnant and has been trying to catch up ever since. That was eight years ago.
But the years had given Belinda something Alia could only hope for; a family. Her husband Alex was a warm-hearted man who enjoyed the simple idea of a family and loved their son, Sam, with all of his heart. It seemed enough for Belinda, despite her professional setback. Somehow, she had found a way of inserting people into her life without compromising her own happiness, and Alia was in awe of that.
“You look nice, Alia,” Belinda said, knowing that giving her best friend an honest compliment was a surefire way to help her reach the end of her day with less stress than if she hadn’t heard it.
‘Thanks Belinda,” Alia replied, then added,
“You wanna know something?”
“What’s that?” Belinda asked.
“We look the same!”
Alia and Belinda both looked down at their outfits and realized that they were wearing the same blue jeans, black shirts, and black heels. They both laughed, and Alia shook her head while she reached into a bag for a white shirt to replace the black one.
“There. Now we look similar, but not the same!” she said with a smile.
“Perfect!” Belinda stated.
“Hey Alia,” Belinda asked, in a completely different tone to just moments ago,
“Promise me that, if I leave the bar tonight because I don’t feel well, you’ll only stay long enough to finish your drink!”
Her words were solemn, somber, and sobering. She sounded more like a school teacher than a friend, but that was Belinda; always the mother, protector, and confidant. Alia agreed, as she always did when they went out together.
“You promise?” she asked to confirm.
“I promise,” Alia replied.
It was the middle of summer, but the days were not as hot as they were in previous years. The heat made Alia feel comfortable in her own skin. The coast at that time of year was busy because of the Summer Sun Festival, which brought crowds from all over to enjoy the beautiful weather. Ideally, it wasn’t the best time to be on the coast. The city would have been much more spacious, but they’d planned on making the trip months ago, so both Belinda and Alia hadn’t given it much afterthought.
Alia had been waiting for this break for months because work was stressful, despite the fact that she loved her profession. She had her own office with her own view and she had her own receptionist, but she also had a boss who would come and go and, on occasion, caused Alia to worry about her performance. Mark owned the practice, so he also thought he owned Alia and often required her to increase her clientele, which resulted in working extra hours. Generally, she refused to adhere to his requests, but Mark had begun insisting that she work the required hours and it was taking its toll on her. Listening to broken hearts and unmendable souls was her passion, but she was also human, and humans on the receiving end, especially sympathetic ones, somehow seem to wind up losing faith in the system, or worse, in themselves. For Alia, her limit was steadily approaching.
But it wasn’t only Alia he treated that way, it was all of the psychiatrists who worked for him. Alia knew the practice wasn’t right for her, but hadn’t searched for an alternative. At the end of her days, she always worked on her writing as an escape. She was so passionate about writing that the stresses of work seemed like a distant memory when sitting at her desk typing on her laptop. But that belonged in the city. Right now, the only thing Alia had to focus her energy on was relaxing on the coast.
Belinda and Alia arrived at the bar just after eleven o’clock and before long, Belinda was already yawning. Both Alia and Belinda knew it would not be long before Belinda was going to go back to the hotel to rest. Alia had seen it many times before. Belinda’s life was just more stressful than hers, in the way that doesn’t allow for any time to heal. When Alia felt sick, she could rest without kids around. She had much more freedom than Belinda.
They chose a bar at random. There was no reason for where they ended up and no particular care was taken in making the decision to enter it. When they walked into the main area, Belinda deceivingly smiled with energy. She seemed ready for a long night of drinking and dancing, but in reality it was not going to happen.
The darkened room was illuminated in a limited amount of areas. Behind the bar, the waiter’s face lit up as he reached for crystal glasses over neon lights. It made some of the drinks look like blue fire and others like rainbows on summer evenings. Lights led patrons to an area where they could dance and on the far side of the room were a group of low sofas with dark colored cushions, which looked inviting, but also looked mysteriously suspicious. Alia eyed off the sofa and wondered what sinister things lay behind the cushions and what consequences for being over in that area could have on her life. None of her answers were favorable, so when she saw a couple of stools, she suggested they sit at the bar.
“Let’s sit there,” she said and watched as Belinda’s expression went from reasonably excited to relief,
“Are you alright, Belinda?” she asked her friend.
“No, I’m really not, Alia. Let’s have one drink and then I’ll go,” she said, rubbing the sides of her forehead in pain.
Alia spent the next ten minutes trying to convince her friend that they should leave together. She didn’t want to be the cause of Belinda falling ill and not being able to enjoy the rest of the weekend, but Belinda insisted,
“You stay,” she said,
“You need this.”
And Alia agreed. She really did need it.
When she was satisfied that she had asked enough times, understood that Belinda would catch a cab and get back to the hotel safely, and exhausted her expression of concern, she let the issue be. Belinda sipped on a nonalcoholic lemon drink, but Alia ordered a martini. For Alia, it soothed so much. She was thirsty, needed to relax, and wanted to forget her day. It did everything she needed it to.
When Belinda hugged Alia goodbye, unbeknownst to her, it would be the last time, for a few years, that she would hug anyone without feeling extremely uncomfortable, but if there were anyone worthy of such an embrace, it was Belinda.
Alia was suddenly on her own,
‘Maybe, just one more drink,’ she told herself and headed for the bar to carry out her own instructions, instructions which defied her friend’s request.
A few minutes passed when a man approached her, greeting her with a warm, inviting smile, and a kind nature that seemed to know nothing of threatening.
“I’m Dante,” the man said to Alia, holding out his hand, with confidence, to be shaken.
She noticed the hands first, he had nice hands; the kind of hands on a man one would hope to marry. Then she connected the hands to the sculptured arms, and then she saw his face. He had the bluest eyes of anyone she had ever met, and the caramel tan of his skin made everything else in the room fade far from conscious view. His black hair lay effortlessly, while strands occasionally fell over his eyes. When he wiped them away, it seemed as though even the music had ceased to exist. The charming man waited for his hand to be shaken with incredible patience, holding a smile like a note on a finely tuned instrument.
Alia took her time and finally responded, thinking she’d taken long enough to decide if she should talk to him or not.
“Alia,” she replied, placing her hand in his.
Dante continued to smile and Alia noticed dimples on his cheeks, which drew her in, even further.
“I saw you earlier,” he said,
“Is your friend no longer here? Is she alright?” he asked.
“She left, but she’s fine. She has a headache,” she told him.
Dante smiled and said nothing more. He didn’t need to. His perfect face and warm demeanor said everything a tired working woman needed to hear. He crossed his arms and held his drink, looking down at it and then back up at the bartender, who had just approached the pair.
“Can I get you two anything else?” he asked.
Dante looked at Alia with a raised eyebrow, waiting for her response.
“No, I’m fine, thanks. I think I’m just going to head back now,” she said.
The waiter did not linger for Dante’s response. He’d seen the scenario many times before and knew that nine times out of ten, the man wasn’t going to order another drink if the woman didn’t. He was right. Dante turned all of his attention to Alia, placed some money on the bar, then let out a sigh,
“Well then, Alia. It was nice to meet you,” he said.
“Nice to meet you also,” Alia replied, as she stood up to walk away.
She knew it was about time she should be getting back to the hotel where Belinda felt terrible and most likely needed her help. After all, they had been friends since they were kids and they had a pact.
But it was this very moment, this small, minute millisecond, which would change Alia’s life forever. She didn’t know it, but not leaving would alter her state of mind and the consequences of her actions would ultimately cause a chain of events, which would leave her with a new outlook on life and a new reason to live.
”What harm can one more drink do?” she asked herself, hoping Dante would hear her.
“What’ll it be?” he asked Alia.
From that moment on, the night seemed like a dream. Alia didn’t necessarily want to spend all her time with Dante because she had only just met him, but it was nice to have the company.
After their first drink, Alia felt a little bit more at ease. After the second, her limbs followed suit and felt more comfortable in their own skin. And after the third, she felt completely relaxed and confident. Dante talked a lot, but Alia didn’t hear much of what he had to say. She only ever watched his frame and where he put his hands. He drank just as much as she did and he smiled a lot. It was a welcomed change to her daily life of broken hearts and secretive conversations.
Her career saw her engaging with many people, but the nature of it was so lonely. On any given day her ears would bleed. She would sit for hours, listening to a dark world, which sought no reprieve. She was always a believer in dreams and hope, but her patients had no desire to change their thoughts or actions and it took years for Alia to come to that conclusion. At first their stories hit her hard; their pain resonated through her and she would take it all home with her, carrying the heavy load with her until she fell asleep at night, all the while, trying to mentally find ways of coping, as well as finding answers to their problems. Her advice was given, then gradually she realized that it would always be ignored. The sinners always came back to subtly find ways of validating their actions and get some sort of moral pass to do it again. After a few years, it became all too predictable and the career Alia studied so hard for had become, regrettably, just a job.
“You still with me?” Dante asked, noticing that, while he was talking, Alia had drifted off.
“Yeah, sorry,” Alia replied.
“So, what do you do?” he asked.
Alia didn’t want to talk about work. She’d come to this place for the exact opposite reason, but to avoid being rude, she replied with reluctance,
“I’m a Psychiatrist.”
Dante’s eyebrows raised and he nodded his head in deep thought,
“Impressive!” he proclaimed.
“How so?” Alia asked him, unable to filter her annoyance with the topic.
Dante turned away from Alia and faced forward, toward the bar and the array of drinks on display. He used his time wisely, carefully thinking about his response,
“You help people. These days people are too self-involved to move out of the way on the sidewalk, let alone sit down with a stranger and listen to their problems.”
“It’s not as rewarding as one might think,” she told him.
Dante looked confused, but rather than ask further questions, he simply listened as she explained,
“There are some amazing, inspiring people, who come to me for help. But there are also some real creeps, you know? And the thing about creeps is, they always think the world owes them something. It makes me mad sometimes,” she said, adding,
“Dante, can you keep a secret? I think I may be in the wrong profession! I take all my work home and, at the end of the day, I feel like there’s a void, you know?” she asked.
Dante picked up his glass and looked around. He sipped his drink and said to Alia,
“The thing about people with voids is, their beds are always full.”
Alia didn’t know what to say. She just nodded and took a sip of her own drink. Clearly Dante was flirting with her, but Alia didn’t mind. She hadn’t been with a man for years. In fact, her last boyfriend was more than five years ago. Work had taken over her life since she graduated and there was no room for romance, but what harm could being with someone for the night really do?
‘I’m a grown woman!’ she silently told herself,
‘And, well, just look at him. He’s glorious!’
“So you want to get out of here?” Dante asked, flashing an infectious smile at her, knowing it was foolproof, never once having anyone reject it.
Alia thought for a moment, before finally replying,