BY STEFANI MUÑOZ
It was a cold September evening when I happened to witness a fairly peculiar sight. It was a young man, handsome in his straight suit and ebony tie, equipped with gold cufflinks, quite the smile, and all around charm that it nearly made me jealous. He sat lonesome on a bench beneath a streetlight, quite cliché, with a bottle of whiskey and a somber attitude to match, the glow of the stars reflecting the green in his eyes as he seemed to mull something over in the space between his brows. I happened to have spied him, not a few feet away from my journey home, and found myself walking towards him, though I could find no words to speak, and simply decided to sit beside him, grab that bottle of whiskey, and help myself to a hearty swig. It was then as I contemplated the dismissive attitude of his character (quite honestly I would have socked the joker who drained my whiskey) that I noticed the oddness of his shoes. Where dark laces should have greeted my muddy eyes, yellow laces stood in their place, quite bright beneath the streetlight, and ultimately ridiculous. I put the whiskey down, scrubbed my eyes a bit and decided I would never drink from another man’s bottle again.
“You wear those all the time?”
He seemed startled by my voice, presumably just noticing an imposed stranger, though not quite unsettled at the sight of his whiskey half-drained between us. He had glanced over it dismissively, turning his eyes in my direction as he played a sorry smile.
I pointed to the thing in question, quite obviously the laces, and he glanced towards them, as if just noticing their obnoxious existence. He was quiet for a while, mulling something between his eyebrows once again.
“Yeah, I guess I do.”
“Well, if you don’t mind me being so blunt, they look quite stupid on those shoes.”
He laughed at this; a hearty laugh that seemed to come from deep within and rattle the bones.
“You’re right. They are quite ugly, aren’t they?”
I nodded and crossed my arms, stuffing my numb fingers underneath my arms, trying to shield myself from the creeping cold. The young man sat unfazed, the green of his eyes staring holes into his hands as if they held the answer to some confusing question within his mind and refused to give it up. We sat like that for a while: two blokes quiet beneath an open sky and burdened with something unspoken. If someone would have glanced upon us, right then and there, I have no doubt in my mind they’d have seen something quite pitiable.
It was a while before either of us chose to speak; the young man with his yellow laces decided to fill the chilly silence after some time, his fingers idly playing with the cufflinks at his wrists. It seemed to be a nervous habit; the simple sight made my fingers twitch in irritation.
“Do you think. . . that there’s something out there?”
I raised my brows in question, clearly indicating some sort of elaboration. The young man swallowed a couple times as if something was stuck in his throat and he couldn’t speak until he shoved it down. I had been quite sure he would puke.
“You know, out there.” He then indicated up towards the sky, his cufflinks glinting in the lamplight. “In the great beyond, or whatever.”
The lamplight flickered a bit then, winking out of existence before flaring back to life like a candle flame in the wind. A shiver snaked my spine as I sat back, keeping a wary eye on the young man beside me with the yellow laces.
“Well, of course. You know, all those satellites and such. I’m sure some guys are out on those damn things.”
He shook his head, his eyes then holding something desperate, as though he weren’t satisfied with the answer and believed me to be some thief of secrets.
“No, no, I mean. . . something greater. Like a celestial being, that sort of thing.”
“What, like aliens?”
His laugh was not so cheery this time around. It was one of those sorts of laughs that start at the base of the throat, weak and awkward and forced from the gut.
“No, not aliens. I was thinking more along the lines of the big man in the sky.”
It was out, then, the big philosophical question. I grabbed the whiskey between us, unscrewed the cap and threw caution to the wind, loving the burn and the way the world seemed to un-focus for a moment before snapping back into place.
Hoarsely, I gave the young man a reply.
“You want my honest opinion?”
He nodded, eager yet seemingly dreadful at the same time.
“I have no damn clue what to think.”
We stared at each other then, our eyes locked in that way that makes it almost impossible to break, as if a raw understanding were passing between our gazes and we weren’t ready to look away until we had captured it and made it concrete within our minds. Not too long after the young man sat back, turning his eyes towards the sky. I can only presume he was satisfied with what he had found. He released a breath and nodded his head slowly, seeming to give under the truth of my words. I then rolled the empty bottle of whiskey between my palms, gazing down the neck and into the clear glass bottom.
“But I can tell you this. Whether you want to believe in something or not, it’s up to you. Not any one else, you hear? You and I can believe in things that no one knows is true or not, or we jump in the bandwagon and hold on for dear life. You can believe the Earth is flat for all I care, but it’s not my place to tell you what the real truth is. You want to believe in the big guy? Go for it. No one can tell you he ain’t real, because none of us have a damn clue.”
After I finished I experienced an odd feeling of dizziness, as though the words had escaped on one drawn out breath, and for the first time in months, I felt lighter somehow. Setting the bottle between us, I glanced towards the stars and pondered, quite curiously, whether the big man was real, and if he, in some way, had some influence in the matters of this night with the young man who wore yellow laces.
“It’s odd, isn’t it? The way things happen, I mean.”
He sounded forlorn, like one usually does when reminiscing of things in the past, and wondering where the hell they went wrong in the present, and whether they would get better in the future. The sound made me confusingly irate, as many aspects did about this character, and I couldn’t help but contemplate what such a young man like him knew about the world outside his walls.
“Well, yeah. If some joker told me months ago I’d be sitting on a bench in the middle of the night during September drinking from some guy’s whiskey like it was my own, I’d tell them they’d lost their right mind.”
From the silence that followed I had felt as if I hadn’t said the right thing. Before, it had usually been one of those comfortable calms; an understanding that there wasn’t much to say. But right then it felt heavy with something unsaid which tends to weigh the shoulders and cause an ache in the head. I glanced sideways, hesitant for once. He sat forward, figure hunched and mournful eyes contemplating his limp hands as if they had failed him somehow.
“A couple weeks ago I went to the clinic. I had been getting these...headaches. The sort of ones that seem to split your skull from the inside. The doctor told me it was a tumor. I didn’t believe him until he showed me the x-ray.” He touched the back of his head, as if he could physically feel it beneath his skull. “Damn thing is huge. About the size of a grape fruit.”
There was a quiet pause, the intake of a deep breath and then he continued.
“It was like something came crashing down hard within that room and pulled the floor from beneath my feet. The doctor had me on hospital rest for a couple days, doing tests and all that. He had me put on counseling for the time being but I think that only made it worse. I was stuck inside my own damn head. Every minute I felt myself slipping further and further from myself. Doc insisted they keep me longer, but I wanted none of it. I just wanted to get away, you know? To just...hide somewhere for a while where I didn’t have to think about one damn thing for a second.”
He rubbed his face with a hand and for a moment I could see him, twenty years from now, crushed and lost with nowhere to look to.
“Before I left I had to wait awhile, something about filing some paperwork in order for my release. I had just been standing in the hallway, trying to get my head wrapped around everything, when these little shoes with yellows laces just walked right up to me, and I thought it was the funniest thing in the world. But they belonged to a little girl, and I felt terrible afterwards, so I told her they looked cool and asked where I could get a pair. And you know what she said to me?”
He looked at me then, green eyes knowing and impossibly sad. Words just didn’t seem feasible at that moment, like many things never did when life got in the way, so I simply nodded.
“She said God gave them to her, so that whenever she felt sad or scared and found herself looking towards the ground, she would always see those laces and think of the sun in heaven and know that he was always there, and that he would make sure to take good care of her. So I went the next day and bought myself a pair and went back to the hospital to show her, just so that I might see her smile again and make someone else happy for once.”
His words were weak then, fragile and easily carried away by the September wind. I had no doubt that that something which had been stuck in his throat not too long ago was a deep pain that nearly suffocated him.
“But I went and I found an empty room. And this old lady from across the hall tells me that that morning she had passed away. Died from a brain tumor just like mine.”
There was a cruel finality to it all and for one minute I wished I hadn’t come across this young man with yellow laces who seemed to shine like a beacon within the night. I wished I could have said something, anything to reassure him that somewhere out there that little girl was with her God with those little yellow laces and a big yellow sun in heaven. I wished I could have given something back to that young man who held no qualms with pouring his heart out to an old bloke with a soul as empty as a whiskey bottle. I wished I could have told him everything was going to be alright and I wished I might have been able to say sorry. But as I opened my mouth to speak, nothing came forth, and all I could do was stand and stare at the sky and wonder why I ever thought it was a good idea to drink another man’s whiskey.
That time around we had no need to look each other in the eye to understand the implications of the moment. I could almost feel the green of his eyes against the back of my neck, as though God himself were judging me from behind. When the young man spoke again his voice was heavy with a smile.
“You owe me a whiskey.”
It was a while before I answered.
“I sure do.”
I did not look back as I walked solemnly towards the vague direction of home, my mind in a spin and my heart pounding a curiously odd ache beneath my chest. Ten years later, feeling thirty years older and none the better, the thought of yellow laces still fills me with an irritable pang of pain within my heart and an undeniable sense of guilt. I wondered if the young man lived, or if he were possibly up there now with the big guy, where the little girl smiled and their laces shined as bright as the sun, and I wondered if I had been a better person, I might’ve bought him another bottle of whiskey, and might’ve told the young man with those odd yellow laces that everything was going to be all right.