The world was so much simpler when Forever 21 was just a shitty clothing store. Nowadays, it’s nothing more than a bar off 42nd street, with a comically-large hourglass by the door filled with sand that never falls. I used to consider it nothing more than a cheap gimmick; another one of the city’s countless tourist traps. The truth is the bar was never what attracted people. All those stupid, far-from-subtle decorations aren’t what people come to stare at; we are.
“Wow, look at this guy,” some kid says from across the bar. “Doesn’t look a day over 30, but what are you really, pal? A hundred? Two?”
Ignoring him only brings him closer. He’s standing right next me, staring at me like I’m made of wax, while I keep my eyes centered on the bar.
“Not a single gray hair. Wow.”
And look at you, not a single ounce of respect. No semblance of personal space. An absolute waste of a human being. But I’m the sideshow?
“How old are you? Come on, just tell us.”
A group stands behind him, snickering.
“Fuck off,” I say.
The adult-sized child continues to smile, refusing to move even an inch away.
“I’m serious,” I say. “If I have to get out of this seat to get you kids to leave me alone, I swear—”
“Wow, he even has the attitude of an old man. Take it easy, pal, we’ll leave. Wouldn’t want you to break a hip or anything.”
They leave, laughing their way out the door, and I’m left alone with Robin, standing behind the bar, while I wait for Andrew.
“You might as well have told them to get off your lawn while you were at it,” Robin says.
“Aren’t you sick of dealing with shit like that?” I ask her.
“Like what? Like you threatening my customers?”
“Oh, please, those kids weren’t old enough to drink.”
“But you are too old to fall for their shit, Isaac.”
“You’re just as old as me! Doesn’t it bother you?”
“I’m numb to it at this point,” Robin says. “Been working this carnival for nearly a century now.”
“I swear,” I continue, “every time I show someone my ID, it’s like they’ve run into a ghost. Date of birth, 1997. No, that’s impossible!”
“No one’s forcing you to come here.”
“It’s not me who wants to come. It’s Andrew.”
“Right. I forgot you had a friend.”
“Yeah, and it’s his birthday, so here we are.”
“How many years has it been now? I feel like every time I see you it’s Andrew’s birthday.”
“That’s because it is Andrew’s birthday every time I’m here. Does it seem like we’re here more often?”
“Well, Andy’s here all the time.”
“I know he is.”
“Time moves differently when you’ve lived as long as I have…”
“I have lived as long as you have.”
“…the years feel like months. The months feel like days.”
“Are you high or something, Robin?”
“No, Isaac, I’m the bartender.”
I look away, shaking my head. As I turn my attention to the entrance, I see Andrew finally walking through the door.
Robin slides a beer over to the space beside me as Andrew slides onto the stool.
“Happy birthday, kid,” Robin says. “What’s the number at now?”
“One. Nine. Nine,” Andrew says, his emphasis on each number wasted. “A year away from being the Bicentennial Man!”
“Sure,” I say, “if you call this living.”
Andrew picks his drink up and takes a sip, clearly ignoring what I just said. With an exaggerated “ah” he puts it back down and smiles widely at nothing in particular.
“Another year, another year, huh?” he says.
“I don’t think that’s an expression.”
“Maybe not, but it’s nice to be here. How long have you been waiting?”
“All my life, it seems. Thirty minutes, at most.”
He nods his head.
“This place is so dead nowadays,” he says. “I kind of like it.”
I nod in return.
“You remember when we first came here?”
“Here?” I exclaim in my highest pitch. “Did something significant happen here? Can’t say that rings a bell.”
“Come on, Isaac, you know what I’m talking about.”
“But you’re going to tell me anyway.”
“Do you not want me to?”
“Not really, but it’s your day, so go ahead. I know it’s what you want to do.”
He tells this story every year…every fucking year; as if I wasn’t there for it; as if I didn’t introduce them in the first place; as if I wasn’t listening the last hundred times he told it; as if she hasn’t been dead for over eighty years now! It’s not even an interesting story, for fucks sake!
“Alright then,” Andrew says, “I will. So…it was February 8th, 2053. A cold winter’s night. Forever 21 had been open for over a year now and with the hype over a bar for ‘immortals’ finally dying down, we decided to check it out.”
“Wow, it’s like I was there.”
The story then follows as it always does. Andrew, surprised to see the bar still busy-as-ever—as if it wasn’t a normal Saturday night in New York City—decided he wanted to leave, but I made him stay. We sat at the bar, Andrew sulking, while I scouted out the scene. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think everyone in there was immortal; beautiful, young faces filled the floor; there wasn’t a wrinkle in sight. But, talking to them, I quickly realized this bar was the tourist trap I feared it was—except instead of the endless lights and advertisements being the attraction, we were. It was like we were at the Bronx Zoo, waving at our fellow polar bears, while those on the other side watched in awe as we took a shit.
Andrew didn’t realize that, though, as he was too shy to ever venture far from the bar, forcing me to talk for the two of us. I could see him staring at a short brunette with wavy hair and a scarlet sundress, dancing alone. He stared at her like he was stuck in a trance, as I continued to watch her, wondering what the big deal was.
She was twirling around, moving to the beat of a much faster drum than the one playing overhead, as her hair swung around her face like an umbrella and her arms spread out to the ceiling.
I thought she looked ridiculous, flailing about like she was in her own private nightclub, while those around her simply avoided her manic movements. I couldn’t understand how she could simply not care how she appeared; how she could look so silly yet be so happy. Meanwhile, Andrew always looked like a sad manikin; so stilted and somber. He was just sitting there staring while she danced and danced.
When I approached her, she went for another spin, whacking me in the head with her open palm in the process. Suddenly, she realized she was not alone and was more than apologetic, grabbing my arm with her tiny hands as she shined her big blue eyes into my face.
“Sorry, so sorry,” she said. “I was in my own world there. I’m Suzy.”
“That’s okay,” I told her. “I just came to see if you wanted someone else to dance with. My friend Andrew has been dying to join, but he’s a little shy, so I was hoping you might be able to convince him.”
“Oh, that’s so sweet of you. Where is he?” she asked, to which I pointed at the bar where Andrew was continuing to awkwardly stare at the both of us.
She waved him over, but he just shook his head.
“Well,” she said, “tell him I would love to dance with him, but I’m not going to pull him from his precious stool to do so.”
I went back to the bar then and told Andrew to get his dumb ass on that dance floor if he wanted a chance with her.
“But I don’t dance,” he told me, so I pushed him off his stool and over to the floor before he could give another excuse.
He approached her slowly, while she continued to smile and pantomimed pulling him in like he was her personal marionette. I stayed by the bar and watched as they finally converged and she continued the act, grabbing his hands and twirling him around like a top.
Her voice echoed in my head: “I was in my own world.” And I thought, now he’s in it too.
I can tell by the way Andrew’s smiling that he’s reached the same point in the story.
“And then she pulled me close,” Andrew says, “and said ‘here’s to never growing old.’ Then we kissed, and love began.”
See what I mean? Horrible storyteller. Not only did she not kiss him that quickly (it was almost an entire month before that even happened), but…love began? I can’t listen to this anymore.
“I thought she was serious at the time—that we were going to be forever together—forever in our youth. I only learned later that—”
“That she wasn’t immortal, and she was totally going to grow old and fucking die, and that’s exactly what happened.”
If you didn’t know any better, you’d think I just slapped him across the face.
“I was getting to that,” he says.
“You’ve gotten to it a million times now. Why don’t you get to moving on already?”
His eyebrows lower with each word that comes from my mouth until they’re nearly digging into his eyes.
“Moving on?” Andrew snaps. “Why do I need to move on?”
“Because what? Because there’s other women out there? I need to be like you, the Dozen-Times-Divorcé, to be happy?”
“Soon to be a baker’s dozen, actually.”
“Oh yeah, why’s that? She getting too old for you? What was it you told me last time—that she ‘long since passed her expiration date’? You disgust me sometimes, Isaac.”
“First of all, I was talking about the relationship, not her, but she was getting old.” Andrew rolls his eyes like a child. “Second of all, Liz broke up with me. She was the one who said she didn’t want to have to go through ‘some type of Benjamin Button bullshit,’ whatever that means.”
“It was a movie.”
“That came out when? When we were ten? And she was negative one hundred?”
“Well, she did join that film club at the Y.”
“Film club?” I ask. “I thought it was a French club. You know how much cheese and wine that girl consumes?”
“She was your wife; you should know her better than me! No wonder she’s divorcing your ass.”
“Oh, whatever, so we didn’t talk about movies, onto the next one.”
“That won’t work for me,” Andrew says, spitting his anger at me.
“Why not?” I nearly shout. “Oh, that’s right, you’re doing your part to make sure Disney’s little monopoly on escorts stays strong, fucking every robot they got over there instead of anyone real. I bet you make all their whores look like her.”
Robin walks by with two freshly filled glasses. I hadn’t noticed the ones in front of us were empty.
“Well,” she says, setting down the glasses, “seems like I came back just in time for the good stuff. Did I hear something about Disney?”
“Not now, Robin. We’re not talking about Toy Story 17 over here.”
“You disappoint me once again, Isaac.”
“I’ll add them to your tab,” she says and walks away.
“They feel real,” Andrew says, as if Robin was never here. “Why do they need to be real?”
“Because…aren’t you lonely? Don’t you want to feel how it felt to be with someone like Suzy, instead of just fucking something that looks like her?”
“No, honestly, I don’t. Once was enough of that trauma.”
“And here you are judging me for avoiding that by moving on before they get to that point. Honestly, I don’t understand why you stuck around so long. She didn’t even know who you were by the end.”
“She may not have remembered who I was,” Andrew says, “but she remembered how it felt to be loved. And I was going to give her that feeling for every minute she had left, no matter the cost.”
“But it’s been almost a hundred years now, Andrew. When are you going to move on? Wouldn’t Suzy want that—for you to be happy?”
“I am happy.”
“Bullshit! Life is not meant to be lived in the past. All you do is live in this world that’s long since died—literally! When are you going to live in the present?”
“And all you do is live in the future, waiting for your next heartbreak to come around.”
“You think I don’t love these women just because I leave them? Because I don’t sit around, holding their hand as they slowly wither away like you do? I’m doing them a favor, Andrew. They need someone to grow old with. It doesn’t look like that’s ever going to be me, so why put them in that position? Not all middle-aged-women like having it look like they’re married to a college student, Andrew.”
“Breaking their hearts is doing them a favor?”
“Yes, dammit! Don’t you get it? Suzy was not the only one out there for you. Just like Liz wasn’t the only one out there for me. Nor was Lucy. Or Kat. Or Alessandra. Or any of them. And just like I have loved many, so will they. We had our fun together, but the fun ends when they start to age and I continue to not. Trust me, I learned well enough from you that these women deserve to be with someone normal. If anything, I’m being selfish being with them at all. Their prime years are wasted on some ancient Millennial.”
Andrew shakes his head. He must know I’m right.
“She’s dead, Andrew. She’s not coming back.”
“Fine,” he says, getting louder with each letter. “Let’s talk about your ten dead wives instead then. Those who were so gifted, as you insist.”
“No, Andrew, no! We’re supposed to be moving on. This has to stop!”
“It will never stop, Isaac, so long as we keep on living. Tick tock goes the pain clock and when the night ends, it starts again. You ask when, I ask why?”
“Why find more reasons to grieve? Why get married again?”
“Because, Andrew, that’s life. Maybe ours is a little longer than normal, but that doesn’t mean we should stop living it because it hurts. Pain is the only proof we have that there was love. And love is worth it. Would you rather have never met Suzy?”
He slumps down in his seat, staring deeply into the mirror behind the bar.
“I don’t know,” he says, barely more than a whisper.
“You don’t know?” Just like that, I’m yelling again. “What do you mean, you don’t know? She’s all you ever fucking talk about!”
“Exactly! What if she wasn’t? Maybe then things would be better.”
“Don’t be fucking ridiculous. You know it is better to have loved. You may be miserable now, but you were even worse before you met her. She was the best thing that ever happened to you. How dare you spit on her grave by suggesting otherwise.”
Andrew rubs his eyelids.
“You’re right,” he says, lowering his hands. “It just…hurts, that’s all.”
I put my hand on his shoulder.
“I know, Andy. But you know what else hurts?”
He shakes his head left and right, looking down at the wood.
“Going to the same fucking bar eighty years in a row.”
“For fucks sake,” he says, unamused.
“Look, if you don’t want to go through what you went through with Suzy, fine, but why not someone here? Someone else stuck in our same predicament? Hell, why not—”
“Don’t get any ideas,” Robin cuts in.
My chest shoots back, nearly knocking me off my stool.
“Jeez, Robin,” I say. “Have you been standing there listening this whole time?”
“You two are so self-involved,” she says. “You think it’s any easier being a woman? Well, it is.”
She gives a coy smile then walks away.
“Well,” Andrew says, “Robin’s clearly not interested.”
“Someone else then,” I say.
“Who else is there? I’ve spoken to practically every regular here. There weren’t a lot of us in that experiment, you know?”
“And there aren’t a lot of regulars in this bar, so maybe it’s time for a new experiment, huh? One where you branch out, expand your horizons, give a shit. I’m sure you could find the others if you tried hard enough.”
“I don’t know,” he says solemnly.
“Alright, well, you stew on that. I’m going to go talk to Robin, try to get her number before I leave here for—hopefully—the last time.”
I get up and push my stool in. Robin’s on the other side of the bar, serving someone who clearly won’t have any trouble dying. Just look at all that gray hair. Poor bastard. I take another step in her direction, but Andrew’s voice stops me.
“Fine,” he says. “But I’m going to need your help. And I’m going to need a little time.”
I turn to look at him. His somber expression has finally turned a corner. Could he be serious this time?
“That’s fine,” I tell him. “We got nothing but time. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to go say goodbye to the only good thing about this place.”
Turning back to Robin, I find her looking at me with suspicion as she wipes a clear glass down with a white rag. I give her the same look in return. She shakes her head, while the corner of her lips rises ever so slightly, and I smile back.