Rain began to pound the sidewalk outside the Fizzy River Lounge, as if a pipe had burst and the entire Pacific Ocean was now flowing through the streets. I was already regretting calling Jesse and asking him to meet me here. Not because I didn’t like the guy, quite the opposite really. He was charming and intelligent in ways that I could only dream of being. Rather, Jesse had a tendency to be a bit… how can I put? There was something irreverent about him, the way he talked and the way he lived life. Nothing was sacred, and you could bet that if you were nursing an injury, he’d be the first one to rip off the bandage and get right to rubbing alcohol into the wound.
Behind me, the door swung open with a rush, and I turned around just in time to see a soggy-looking Jesse slip inside, shaking a layer of water off his coat and lowering his hood. He was dressed for the weather just like he always seemed to be, in contrast to my own baggy t-shirt and jeans. He was that kind of practical guy, the kind you could count on to always be prepared for whatever the day had to offer. I envied that.
Jesse politely greeted the hostess and pointed in my direction before ambling up, sliding the long coat off his shoulders and draping it across the chair next to me.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said with a smile as he took his seat, careful not to lean back on his damp coat. “And sorry I won’t be able to stay for too long, either. I was on my way to meet up with an old coworker of mine when you called, but I bought myself a little bit of time. What are you drinking, by the way?”
“Eagle Rare, on the rocks,” I replied simply, picking up the tumblr full of golden liquid and chip of ice. “And don’t sweat it. Just glad you could make it.”
“Bourbon instead of beer tonight, huh? It must be serious,” he said shaking his head. The bartender walked up to where we were seated and Jesse told the man “I’ll take one of those,” gesturing at the drink in my hand.
The bartender nodded and busied himself pouring the whiskey while Jesse grabbed a handful of mixed nuts and started popping them into his mouth one-at-a-time.
“So, talk. What’s bothering you, buddy?” he said as he finished chewing the second nut and swallowed dramatically. “I’m usually the one calling you to hang out, not the other way around.”
I took a tiny sip of the Eagle Rare and set the glass on the counter. “I just didn’t feel like drinking alone tonight, that’s all,” I said, avoiding his gaze.
“It’s about her, isn’t it?” Jesse said, tossing an almond into his mouth. “C’mon man, you don’t have to play games with me, I already know.”
“Then why ask?” I countered, a bit more abruptly than I had intended. I reached for an almond to cover my embarrassment.
Jesse shrugged, as he handed the bartender his credit card and told him to start a tab. “Mostly because I want to hear you say it, that’s why. So, what can I do to help?”
“I just wanted a bit of company, that’s all. I don’t need you to solve my problems for me,” I added a bit sourly. The bartender returned with Jesse’s drink, so we clinked glasses, tapped them on the table, and took a sip of our respective whiskeys.
“I’m not trying to solve anything for you,” Jesse said, holding his glass up to the light and admiring the color of the liquid inside. “On the contrary. Life is struggle, man. Overcoming those struggles is how we grow. We learn things through that struggle, we become stronger for having overcome them. Solving your problems for you would be akin to robbing you of valuable life experience, and would be total a disservice to you as a human being. I wouldn’t do that to you.”
“Come on Jesse, don’t go getting all philosophical on me. Not tonight.”
“You know it’s true though,” Jesse said with a wink. “Point is, I’m not trying to solve anything for you. But there’s no shame in asking for some help, or accepting it when it’s offered to you.”
I sighed. I knew calling Jesse was a mistake, things were always a bigger deal with him than they should have been. But he was nearby and was familiar with my situation, so convenience won in the end. I’d much rather not have to explain things from the beginning again to some other friend, and he was here now, so there was no helping it.
“I don’t know man, I’m just feeling pretty lonely lately, that’s all,” I said after a moment of silence. “I’d have thought that by now things would be settling down and I would be back to normal. It’s been months now.”
Jesse nodded solemnly, but said nothing.
“I guess what surprised me more than anything is how little changed after we split,” I continued. “I think maybe I wasn’t whole before I met her and when she was here I could distract myself from that fact, but now that she’s gone I’m back to being incomplete again and it bothers me. A lot.”
“I get it,” Jesse said nodding again.
“It hurts, man.” I said, swirling my whiskey and watching it wash over the smooth surface of the ice. “Like nothing I’ve ever felt before. Not just losing her, but realizing I never even had myself to begin with.”
“Loneliness is a terrible thing, but there are far worse things in this world than feeling lonely,” Jesse said.
I let out a sardonic bark of a laugh. “Yeah? I doubt that.”
“It’s true though,” Jesse said. “Have you ever heard the story about the guy who heard footsteps all the time?”
“I hear footsteps right now,” I said, focusing on isolating the little tap taps of shoes on wooden floor behind me from the cacophony of voices that filled the bar. “What’s so special about that?”
“No, I mean he heard them even when nobody was around,” Jesse said. “Let me explain.”
The man couldn’t even remember when it was he started hearing footsteps, whether it had only been a couple hours or a couple of days. It dawned on him one morning though, as he sat at his kitchen table drinking coffee and watching the news. Footsteps, seemingly coming from behind him. He whipped around, poised to defend himself with the fork and knife he had eaten breakfast with, but found nobody there.
“That’s odd,” he thought to himself, his heart pounding in his chest. “I swear I heard someone walking behind me.” The sound wasn’t muffled the way it was when his neighbor upstairs was getting ready to leave the house, and it was much heavier than the thin, sharp sound her high heels made. He realized at that moment that it wasn’t the first time he had thought someone was walking by only to realize he was alone, but since today was Saturday and he was home alone instead of at the office, he finally realized it wasn’t something totally unprecedented.
Suddenly aware that he was hearing footsteps, now the man couldn’t stop hearing them everywhere he went. He’d hear them coming from the living room while lying on his bed, or else passing in front of him as he read a book in the park. And every time, the footsteps would fail to be accompanied by a person.
They were never the same kind of footsteps either. Sometimes they would be the loud, heavy footfalls of a man in dress shoes, or the silent shuffling of someone who never totally picked their feet up from the floor before moving them. Other times, the man would think a woman in stilettos was strolling through the men’s restroom, or maybe a child running down an empty hallway. The pace was never the same, either. While in the morning, he might find himself hearing someone taking slow, deliberate steps, in the evening he might hear the frantic scrambling of a man being chased by some ravenous beast.
After a day or two of hearing the footsteps, the man simply couldn’t take it anymore. He tried everything to get rid of the sounds, from playing loud music on his headphones to shoving rubber ear plugs into his ears. He even tried going to one of those sensory deprivation chambers at a specialty facility, hoping that by floating in the salt water completely cut off from all sensation he would finally find some escape from the incessant footsteps that stalked him throughout the day. One-by-one though, each of these attempts to silence the footsteps failed, and he would find himself still hearing the footsteps, distorted by the water as if someone was pacing in front of his tank, waiting for the man to emerge, or else stepping in time to whatever song he was listening to, as if the phantom feet were dancing to his music.
“Perhaps it’s a ghost or something,” he thought, though it obviously didn’t explain why he would be hearing the footsteps in places other than home. He was running out of possible explanations, however, and wanted to exhaust all options. So the man found a local medium and invited her to his apartment. After a thorough walkthrough of the home, the medium said that she could detect nothing out of the ordinary in any of the rooms, despite the fact the man could still hear the footsteps in her presence. At his request, the medium performed a cleansing of the apartment anyway, burning white sage and sprinkling salt in the corners of each of the rooms before departing with his money in her pocket. Despite the medium’s efforts, the footsteps continued.
Left with no other possible conclusions, the man sought psychiatric help to try and figure out the source of the footsteps. He began seeing a therapist, who asked all kinds of questions, but all the while he tried to answer them he could hear the sound of someone walking just outside of the doctor’s door, distracting him and rendering him next to useless. The doctor tried everything he could, from prescribing antipsychotic drugs to therapy sessions meant to treat auditory hallucinations, but nothing the therapist did could keep the footsteps from creeping up on the man and sending him into a panicked, paranoid state.
Before long, the man couldn’t even bear to be around other people anymore. The sound of their actual footsteps drove him absolutely mad, and he was beginning to have trouble keeping himself from lashing out at someone who happened to be passing by, accusing them of stalking him. In a moment of pure and utter desperation, the man even tried to cut off his own legs, but was thwarted when a neighbor heard his screams and called the police, who sent him off to the hospital in an ambulance for treatment of the wounds he had inflicted upon himself. After an extended stay at a psychiatric facility, where the footsteps became less and less frequent, the man was released back to his home. It was all for nothing though. The damage had already been done. The man locked himself in his apartment, cutting himself off from society, playing music at all hours of the day and night, in an attempt to help him differentiate real footsteps from the ones in his head.
“To this day, the man has never left his apartment,” Jesse concluded, throwing back the remainder of his whiskey as if to drive home the finality of his story.
“Wow,” I said, blinking. I didn’t know what else to say, so I simply settled with “wow,” and finished off my own drink. The bartender, ever alert, came by and replaced our empty glasses with new ones.
I sat there staring at the damp ring of water my empty glass had left on the counter, the condensation having trickled down to its base at some point during the story.
“What do you think?” Jesse said after a moment.
“You sure know how to ruin a perfectly good mood,” I said with a laugh. Jesse chuckled along with me. “What does that have to do with my being lonely, anyway?”
“I told you there were worse things in this world, didn’t I?” Jesse said tapping his new glass against mine and taking a sip. “That’s one of them.”
I rolled my eyes. “If he never leaves his apartment, how does he get his groceries?”
“I don’t know, maybe someone drops his groceries off outside his door once a week or something. Who cares? Point is, I can guarantee you he never once felt lonely the entire time. So buck up, and stop feeling sorry for yourself. There are things you can control and things you can’t, and if you’re feeling incomplete now then do something about it. Get a hobby or something. That dude had things he couldn’t control, yet he did everything in his power to try and do something about it. Sitting here, drinking and wallowing, it isn’t doing you one bit of good.”
“Maybe you’re right…”
“Maybe? There’s no maybe about it!” Jesse said, and slammed back the rest of his drink. “I’m right, and you know it.”
Jesse shook his head. “Anyway, I gotta run. Think about what I said though. There are worse things in this world than whatever it is you’re feeling right now.”
Jesse stood and beckoned to the bartender, told the man to put my drinks on his tab, then closed it out. He signed the receipt, shoved his credit card back into his wallet and swung the coat onto his arm. The coat still hadn’t completely dried, and the movement flung a spray of water across the lady sitting behind him, earning himself a mean glare. Jesse didn’t notice.
“Take care of yourself, buddy,” Jesse said buttoning his coat.
“Thanks. And thanks for the drinks,” I said, rubbing my forehead and shaking Jesse’s hand.
“Anytime,” Jesse said with a smile, then he turned, flipped up his hood, then calmly walked out into the pouring rain.
I watched him disappear down the street, silhouetted by the reflections of the streetlights in the water, and for some inexplicable reason I felt worse than I had when I arrived. I knew calling Jesse was a mistake.