THE NIGHT WE MET, AGAIN Part 1

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Bryan, to say that I loved you, the first time I met you, is an understatement. You had those green eyes and that jet black hair. You were working at this restaurant at the time, turns out you owned the place.

My ex-husband, Andre, had left me for a 26-year-old beautician. At least that’s how I had chosen to see it then. I wasn’t in the mood to meet anyone new. I had met Andre for dinner at your restaurant to sign my divorce papers. He left me right after dinner. I’m sure I had one too many gin and tonics because I began to weep into my lasagna. Paid for, conveniently, by Andre.

There you were, standing watching me as I moved from the dinner table to the bar area. I stood ordered a glass of wine, trying not to cry as I ordered it, but you knew something was wrong. With my divorce becoming final that day, I didn’t have a clue what I was going to do now. Andre was my entire life until I met you. Sorry Andre, but leaving me was the best thing you ever did for us, and I’m glad we remained friends. There was mumbling and bits of laughter as Andre blew me a kiss from a pew of the crowded church, and I continued reading my letter.

It was raining outside- pouring actually. You let me sit at the bar even though you were closing to wait till the rain slowed a bit. You allowed me to tell you my entire life story even after the restaurant had closed. You ended the night by making me banana cream pie for dessert anyhow, and I ate while you stacked chairs in the bar area I was now sitting in. As they say, the rest is history.

We hung out that night and haven’t separated since, until 1:35 pm last Tuesday. The news came six months ago, Bryan, on a Tuesday afternoon that you had cancer. It made you sick right away, also dying on a Tuesday, it’s safe to say I hate Tuesdays. As I stand here, I am trying to find the words to tell you how much you will be missed. If I could have one more day with you, I would be the luckiest woman in the world. I will always love you, with all of my heart, and how I’ll miss desserts at midnight every anniversary to celebrate the night, we first met seven years ago.

If there is a heaven, I hope we can meet again because you always made the best fucking banana cream pie.

I read the letter to everyone at the funeral to laughter, tears, and warmth of my audience, but I felt a bit lost, and I cried through the entire thing. I barely spat out the last part of the letter. My second husband, Bryan, I had only been with a little over several years. We met after my divorce; he had never been married. Neither one of us had any children before we met, but together we had our daughter Clara.

I was relatively numb the rest of the funeral said my hellos, and thank you’s. I honestly don’t recall everyone that was there, and I’m sure I forgot other people’s names. I didn’t want to seem unkind to anyone, but all I wanted to do was go back to bed and never get out of it. There was Clara, she needed me, and was almost three now. She was the last part of Bryan’s legacy. Clara was in the corner with my mom making faces asking for cookies. Everyone doted on her, and she reveled in the attention.

The funeral guests left finally, shortly after ten in the evening. My mom took Clara for the night so that I could get some rest. It had been a long day. When I walked into my house that night, all I could smell was him, and before I could think of sleep, I began to cry again.

Bryan had been healthy just six months ago. Now he was nothing more than a memory. I sat on the couch, picking up our wedding photo. I wore a short flower dress; we eloped since I had done the big wedding before.

I curled up on to the couch, covering up with his favorite blanket. It smelled like him, and all I wanted was for him to be there now with his arms wrapped around me. I slept like the dead that night and didn’t wake till after one the next day. I dreamt of him that night standing with me at the restaurant he had owned until we had to sell the business for his cancer treatments. Contrary to belief dying in comfort is just as expensive as trying to save someone from actual death.

In the dream, he was my bartender, my dessert maker standing in front of me making small talk, as he had done a thousand times before. Then something took Bryan away; he couldn’t stay. A black mist was carrying him out the door until it was just black.

I awoke with a microwave burrito wrapper stuck to my foot. When did that happen? I sat up, rubbing my eyes looked around the room to the absolute dead silence of my home. I needed my baby girl to make a noise. I picked up my cell phone and saw there was a missed call from my mom. I phoned her half absently and made arrangements to pick Clara up after I showered and cleaned the place up a bit.

In the late afternoon, I picked up Clara, determined to make the most of our new life together. I had started over once before when I divorced Andre. I would start over again, if it were for the worst of all reasons, losing the love of your life.

The first few weeks were the worst after Bryan’s passing. I had so many of Bryan’s things that needed to be boxed away. I had so much of my life that felt like it was at a standstill. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. Everything was upside down, and it was on one of those particular messy days that my youngest brother called me asking if he could come to visit me for the weekend. He had a fall break from college and wanted to spend the weekend with his big sister.

I said it was okay because I could use some other type of human interaction. It made me clean the small home we had built together with a little more. Gave me an excuse to redecorate, minus the guilt, and take a few days off from work. I set up Bryan’s old office in the basement as an extra spare bedroom just for Tom. I was sure he wouldn’t mind; it was like a small apartment completely stocked bar room, bathroom, and a bedroom. I was happy and excited to see him. When we were growing up, he always got on my nerves, and we fought. Now he was a welcome addition to my new life.

My little brother, Tom, arrived a week later, and to my shock and amazement, I smiled a genuinely happy smile for the first time in weeks. Tom pulled into my driveway, and I nearly ran to hug him. We embraced tightly, and genuine tears of joy fell from my face.

Tom was as happy as I was, and together it was like we finally managed to seal that sibling bond. Tom picked up Clara, spinning her around until she nearly lost her breath from giggling. Tom was almost ten years younger than me and finishing up his studies for a Doctorate. He was only twenty-six but was highly intelligent, something with science was all I knew. Tom would try to get me to discuss quantum physics with him, and I would just stare blankly at him.

We went inside and sat the rest of the day talking, drinking wine, playing with Clara, and when she fell asleep, he and I sat up watching reruns of the Golden Girls. Watching is probably an understatement; it was a marathon. When the clock finally struck midnight, I paused the television before the next episode to grab a bottle of water, but before I could get up, Tom grabbed my hand and made me sit back down. He had an anxious expression upon his face.
“Sis, I’m so sorry about Bryan. I’m sorry I had to miss the funeral. Midterms are a bitch.”

“I wasn’t upset,” I sighed. “It was one less person I had to make feel better when I was dying inside.”

“What if I told you that my study group is working on a sort of virtual reality time travel. What if you could see Bryan one more time.”

“I’d say that all sounds very much like a movie.”

“I’m dead serious.” he sat up, looking me dead in the eyes.

“This isn’t funny, we have both had too much wine, and Clara will be up in a few hours.”

“I’m not trying to upset you. It’s like this virtual reality type of thing, well nearly. I think it could help you. I mean, I know this sounds crazy.”

“I’m going to bed, Tom.” My words were final. I knew he meant well, but it came off insulting.

“Grace, sleep tight,” he said, and I went to bed.

The next morning I woke up to my daughter laughing and singing while Tom sang to her. I smelled bacon and coffee.

I walked into the kitchen to Tom, cooking breakfast. He caught sight of me and stopped. The look on Tom’s face was exactly like the one he’d have when I babysat him when he was little. If he’d get in trouble, he’d look at me with his big brown eyes and smile a half-cocked smile. His expression was one of “I’m sorry,” and even with a beard, my brother could pull it off.

“I didn’t want to wake you, but I heard Clara crying, so I grabbed her, and she was hungry, so here we are!”

“Sing Tom!” She yelled from her high chair.

I smiled and grabbed a cup of coffee. “She probably needs a new pull-up on,” I said, making faces at her. She had begun using the little potty training toilet Bryan, and I got her, but she still had accidents at night.

“Are you saying this little cutie is a bed wetter?” Tom asked, making a silly face at Clara, who was completely immersed in whatever Tom said. “Did you pee?”

Clara laughed, shaking her head first, no. She went beat red and nodded laughter spilling out of her.

I rolled my eyes, laughing. “Come on, little lady, let’s get you cleaned up,” I said, picking her up, taking her to get changed.

When all that was done, Tom had the table set. The dishes he cooked with were now piled in the kitchen sink. I didn’t let the mess he made bother me. It had been a long time since someone else had cooked for me.

I sat looking at my brother and Clara. It was nice to have three at the dinner table again. It was lovely to have someone helping me with Clara for a change. Tom made faces at Clara as she laughed at her uncle and then after a little bit, she grew bored of us both and wanted to watch her cartoons. She took her blanket, her teddy bear, and went to her spot on the floor.

“I meant what I said,” Tom began awkwardly. “It could help you with your loss. May speed up the grieving process. I know how lonely and how sad you must be. I can’t imagine sis.” Tom places his hand on mine.

“No. It sounds impossible, and more importantly, I don’t think it’s something I should mess with. Let me grieve naturally.” I said, not even considering the actual possibility of what he was offering.

Tom nodded and stood to clear the dishes away. The rest of the weekend, we hung out with Clara, tried a new Thai restaurant in town, and I forgot about the conversation we had regarding Virtual Reality Time Traveling technology.

Monday morning, Tom was up by five to make the long drive back to his university. I hugged him tightly, missing him already. I waved goodbye as he pulled away, and Clara pouted when she realized her favorite uncle was driving away.

I hugged my baby girl glad to have her because it kept the loneliness from being too excruciating.

I even let her sleep next to me in bed that night because I didn’t want to be alone. She slept much as her father had. Head back, mouth open, and covers up to her chest. Her ringlets stuck to her neck in a clammy sweat from sleeping too long in the same spot.

I kept a night light on for both of us and played soft music. I was off to dreamland before long.

The latest dream was of Bryan and me drinking wine while he rubbed my feet.
“I miss you.” He said
“Stay with me then.”
He kissed me, and my hair became dripping wet. I looked at him as water covered the living room and drowned out the couch we were sitting on. I struggled to breathe and hold onto Bryan. He was swept up and away from me. I felt a dark figure dragging me by my neck further away from him, and I screamed.

I woke to the sound of my daughter yelling at me. She had dumped water on me to wake me up. My eyes were unable to comprehend what I saw after my dream. I was so startled by the action I smacked her face.

“Mama!” She began to cry furiously, and I managed to blink myself awake. Now understanding the cruel act I had just demonstrated. I picked her up, holding onto her.

“I’m so sorry. Mama was just scared! Why did you pour water on me?”

“Wake up, mama.” She said to me as I wiped her tears away. She was pointing to my alarm clock as it was buzzing. I hit the clock, turning it off. I rolled over and took Clara to change.

I felt horrible about smacking her for the rest of the day. Clara had long since forgotten the incident and was playing with her blocks as cartoons blaring on the TV.

I worked from home. I was a freelance editor and recently picked up a rather well-paying gig for a Home Repair magazine. I sat correcting and making notations to an article that was set to appear in next month’s edition.
It wasn’t great money, but it was a regular paying job. I had used some of the funds from Bryan’s passing to pay off my mortgage. It was all the boring stuff after his death that made me ironically feel normal.

It could be lonely, caring for Clara, and having no other person to talk to. I managed to keep myself as busy as possible. Something changed not long after I hung out with my brother a few weeks earlier.

I was at the local market, picking up some fresh produce when an acquaintance of Bryan’s saw me and walked up to me. I barely recalled his name, but I remembered his round face. His name was Elmer, and he was a frequent regular on the nights that Bryan cooked as head chef.

“Grace! I haven’t seen you and Bryan since you guys sold the place,” he said, smiling as he held a large baguette of French bread.

FUCKKK! He didn’t know Bryan had died. It was moments like this that everyone that has ever lost someone close to them dreads. Telling the tale over and over again to anyone that didn’t know. It etches the pain fresh in your mind. As I was finally able to find myself moving past some of the grief after these last few months, Elmer Morris had to see me that day in the market.

“Oh, you didn’t know?” I asked, almost angry. There had been an article in the local paper outlining the death of a beloved local restauranteur. His very face annoyed me as he smiled at me just as I had to find the courage to say it out loud. “Bryan passed away a few months ago. He had pancreatic cancer, and that is why we sold the restaurant.”

Elmer still had that stupid grin on his face and then slowly disbelief and finally sadness. “Wow, I had no idea,” he said solemnly. “I’m really sorry to hear that. Is there anything the misses and I can do? I mean anything at all; name it!”

I looked at Elmer and his sincerity as he held his French baguette, and politely managed to smile. “Thank you,” I said.

He and I exchanged a few more pleasantries, and then we said our goodbyes. I didn’t even finish my purchase. Instead, I felt the world grow heavy. So heavy that I managed to get to my car, and I had a full-blown nervous breakdown. Right there in Sam’s Market parking lot. For all the world to see, I sat on the concrete and balled my eyes out. A woman came over to me to ask if I was okay, and I just continued to cry. I couldn’t move for what seemed hours. Finally, I managed to get up when an ambulance was called to take me away. I feared in a straight jacket. I managed to talk them into letting me drive home on my own and that an intervention was not necessary. It was then, and there I knew without a shadow of a doubt I was not okay.

I thought about what my brother had suggested with the virtual reality device that was designed to act as a time-traveling device. Could I do that? Was it even possible what he was proposing? I knew that if it was something that could help, I was game.

The next day after a very emotional phone call, my brother had me meet him two hours away at the university. I made arrangements for Clara to stay with my mom overnight. I didn’t want to have to worry about her too much while I was gone.

Tom had me bring items that meant something to both Bryan and me like his favorite t-shirt, an old Counting Crows shirt he got at one of their shows in Seattle a few years before we met, a playlist he made me on cd when we first met, and a slice of banana cream pie.

Tom had me meet him in the laboratory so we could discuss how it worked and what it entailed. Tom was sitting next to his friend, Billy, who had three computers running at once. Billy wore a pair of what looked like virtual reality glasses on top of his head.

Billy stood when I entered the lab, and he shook my hand. “This is such a pleasure! Tom and I have been working on this for the last two years. This is our final prototype, and we are so glad you decided to participate in our little experiment-”

“Trial!” Tom interrupted.

“Oh, right! I’m sorry. I meant trial.”

“I don’t want my big sis getting scared off.”

“It’s okay, Tom. So guys tell me how this all works.” I asked nervously.

“I’ll let Billy explain he’s much better at the explaining part.” Tom smiled rubbing my shoulder,

“It’s simple, you put these glasses on, and the sensors are placed on your forehead to monitor brain activity. It is used as a mirror to your mind, similar to the studies with the Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging and computation models used at UC Berkeley. The only difference is that it is used to play out new scenarios, not old memories. So in a sense, you can travel through time reliving memories or recreate the same scenarios using different outcomes.”

“How?” I asked intrigued but also in disbelief.

“It uses sensory perceptions to aide in the experience. So we would play songs that remind you of your late husband, use his cologne.”

I looked at Billy and then at Tom.

“That’s why I had you bring those things that meant something between you and Bryan.”

I looked at my pile of weird memorabilia and smiled.

“Tom, did you have her fill out the forms and sign the waiver?” Billy asked him.

“Um, Billy, it’s fine,” said Tom.

“What is he talking about? Is this even safe?” I asked him, concerned.

“Yes,” Tom sighed. “It is just preliminary. You will be fine, don’t worry about it.”

“Tom-” Billy interrupted

“It’s fine!” Tom snapped under his breath at Billy.

“Are you sure?” Billy asked.

“My sister isn’t a lab rat; it’s a one and done,” Billy said, sighing as he looked at me. “It can only be done once, at least until we know more about it. You are helping someone just like you.” Tom said, turning his attention to Billy then back to me.

“Okay,” Billy said as he started up the computers, and Tom turned off the lights in the room.

“Lock the doors to the lab and make sure no one can come in. I’m not sure how long this will take.” Tom said to Billy.
Billy did as told, and then Tom came over to me and wiped alcohol swabs on my forehead. He had me lay on a long table while I was hooked up to sensors. He attached sensors to my forehead, and one to my chest to monitor my heart. Tom had me put on the goggles, which blacked out everything in the room. It reminded me of having an extra pair of eyelids. He then placed the banana cream pie next to me on a table so I could get a good whiff of it. Tom started the playlist, which the first song I didn’t even hear because I was still concentrating on my current surroundings. Tom handed me Bryan’s Counting Crows t-shirt, and I held on to it, close to my nose because it still smelled like Bryan.

“Sis, I want you to relax. Take a few deep breaths. I want you to think about the first time you met Bryan. Think about what he looked like, what he smelled like. What was he wearing? What were you wearing?”

I concentrated on that moment. It took what seemed hours; then it got fuzzy. I felt my legs grow numb. They felt like they were floating. I began to see a place I had known so well as the back of my hand. I felt like I was flying until I could see Tim’s Tavern. That was the restaurant- bar I had met Bryan in all those years ago. I found my feet suddenly. I looked down, and I was wearing black high heels. I was walking in them, but slowly. I looked around; it was raining. It was pouring. There was a chill in the air, and I could distinctly feel it. A man was walking across the street wearing a Chicago Bulls sweatshirt. He ignored me as I sauntered toward the bar. I was apprehensive because I couldn’t seem to fathom this as I kept going. Part of me wanted to run toward the door. I hesitated before I opened the door. Something about it was different; I couldn’t place my finger on it.

I was nervous suddenly, what if it didn’t work? What if my memory of him wasn’t the same, and he looked different. I had to try that much I knew. I needed a way to say goodbye properly, even if it was just seeing him one more time. I tried to forget this was all a virtual reality simulation. I took a deep breath after all that was the worst that could happen?

I opened the door, and right away, I noticed it. The smell was decisively different. There was smoke in the air. People hadn’t been allowed to smoke in bars in over ten years. I heard a jukebox blasting Regulate by Nate Dogg. An odd choice for a love match, why didn’t my stupid brother skip to the next song the cd he was using for background music? This wasn’t the song I had wanted to be in the background. There wasn’t anyone in the tavern at all, it was smaller, and then I realized this was the old barn before it was torn down for renovations. There was an odd olive green paint that covered the walls and the old black seats that had been there before Bryan had bought it and turned it into a fancier establishment.

The thing that struck me as strange was how empty the place was. It must have been from my imagination. I had never been in the old Tim’s Tavern before Bryan took it over. I stood there and looked around. There was no bartender to wait on me, only a woman smoking and sipping on a glass of bourbon. She had stringy hair, and it was long and gray. She said nothing as I approached the bar. I looked at the wall. There was a sign that was advertising WINGS for 59Cents a piece on THURSDAYS. Just below that was another sign that made me laugh. It said, “IF YOU DRINK AND CAN’T DRIVE YOU PAY DOUBLE FOR A TAXI” There was a photo of a cop arresting a patron next to it.

I heard a loud laugh, and a taller man was in the back that was chewing on a toothpick and had long dreadlocks. I knew by looking at him; he was the cook Bryan had talked of often. Mikey was Bryan’s favorite person. They had worked together for years. Mickey had been shot in a driveby three weeks before Bryan opened his new restaurant, which would have made Mikey his sue chef. It was the worst night of Bryan’s life. Why on earth was Mikey here in my simulation?

Mikey was laughing loudly in the back. “Hey, dummy, you got a lot of nerve saying that about Jordan. Who you got that’s better?” he was yelling at someone. Then he stopped when he saw me. “Hey, someone’s thirsty,” he yelled and then smiled over at me. “Someone will be with you momentarily.”

I saw him come out of the kitchen. He was younger than when I had first met him. His hair was a little longer, his eyes were brighter, and I knew then this was before I had ever met Bryan. I stood there looking at him, dumbfounded, unable to breathe for a second.

“Hey, sorry about that loudmouth. What will you be having? We have several specials, but I don’t recommend any of them.” He laughed.

I smiled. I wasn’t exactly sure what to do. Somewhere in the background, the Fugees were playing Killing Me Softly. My heart stopped for a second, and I was too shy to speak. I fought off tears that I knew were only a word away. I felt ugly – fat and old compared to this much younger version of my husband, now deceased in my dimension. Here he was happy, healthy, and full of life. I fought the urge to jump over the counter and hug Bryan as he smiled at me. He was in his twenties, at least not the middle-aged man I had married and had a young daughter with. I looked at him, smiling.

“Let me guess. White wine?”

I shook my head, willing to play along.
“Okay, someone as pretty as yourself would probably love a nice fine red?” he asked.

I nodded, and he grinned big, quite pleased with himself.
He handed it to me, and I smiled.

“Thank you.”

“Anything else for you, Sylvia?” he asked the older woman with the stringy gray hair.

She slipped off the barstool tossed a twenty-dollar bill at Bryan, and then scowled at me as she turned to go. She looked at me, and if looks could kill, this woman would have murdered me.

“You don’t belong here.” She said as she grabbed her coat, walking out the door.

I ignored the old drunk woman.

“Ignore her; she’s always grouchy. Husband died, and she has never been the same since,” he said, putting the twenty in the cash register.

I thought about how I could relate.

“It’s okay,” I said, looking at him as he seemed unable to take his eyes off me.

“You seem really familiar to me. Do you work at the university?” Bryan asked me.

“No. I have one of those faces.” I said jokingly.

“Right. Well, you like basketball?” he asked, turning the channel on the TV.

“Love it,” I said, looking at him. I couldn’t stop watching him. It was so bizarre.

The television was on in the background Chicago Bulls were playing the Celtics. I ignored the tv for the most part as it was Bryan and I alone in the entire bar. I looked at the clock on the wall. It was only seven o’clock, so it was early still.

“So, I have to run back to the kitchen, but I’ll be right back if you need anything.”

I felt a vibration on my wrist. It felt like someone was touching me.
Bryan came back in what seemed like seconds later. “By the way, what is your name?”

“Grace.”

“I like that. You sticking around, Grace?”

“For a little while,” I said.

“Good. I like it. You are accommodating because you have no complaints.” Bryan laughed. He handed me another glass of red wine. You could get drunk in the simulations. I was already feeling the effects of the wine.

We talked a bit longer, and we laughed so much my cheeks hurt. Then I felt a sharp sting in my chest. Something told me it was time to leave. Something was wrong in the real world.

“I have to go now,” I said to Bryan.

“No! If you leave, I’m stuck here all by myself and whatever crazy customers come in after you. You have to stay and protect me!” he grabbed my hand.

I pulled away suddenly, not expecting to feel him. This seemed to be a sudden game-changer. Tom had not told me I’d be able to touch him. I guess it did make sense with all the sensory stuff.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to invade your personal space.” Bryan said to me.

“It is fine. I’m sorry, I really have to go.”

“Will you be back any time soon?”

“I’m not sure. I’m just passing through.”

Bryan grabbed a pen and paper. “Here is my number. If you happen to be in the area again, we should grab a coffee. There is a cool place around the corner.”

“Okay. Thank you.” I took the number in my hand and walked out the door.

As I passed through the door to leave, I saw a shadow go in as I left. It was cold, and it stopped me in my tracks. There was a chill that ran up my spine, and there was something almost evil about it. It didn’t belong in my simulation. I wished for Tom to wake me.

As I left, the street light went off. I turned back toward the bar, and it was empty. I felt the urge to run.

Before I could move, I felt myself fading from this time and space. I felt something behind me, but before I could turn around, I was wide awake in the lab. Tom was removing my goggles.

“Two hours. You stopped breathing. We brought you back. I kept pinching your wrist. You scared me.” Tom said.

When I looked at him, I could see he looked pale. I felt sick suddenly.

Without warning, I got sick on the floor of the laboratory.

“Motion sickness,” Billy said. “From the floating feeling.”

I nodded. Tom helped me by giving me some medicine to help me curb nausea.

He even insisted on my staying with him that night, but I decided to drive the two hours back home.
########################

I was glad to get home finally. I felt like I had a flu virus.

I took a shower and then went straight to bed.

That was the first night I saw him.
I woke to a pain in my leg. When I opened my eyes, there were two red glowing eyes over my body and a burning sensation in my leg where he was pinning me down.

A growl escaped his lips.

“YOU DON’T BELONG HERE!”

I kept trying to wake up, but I was already wide awake, and there was an entity that I felt even when I was in the simulation. It gave me that same cold chill, except when it touched me, it burned like fire. What had Tom let happen to me?

To be continued.

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