“In the Absence of Grace”, coming soon in 2020

August, one year ago
Tea lights

It was the kind of bar that set out tea lights at each booth. Around dusk, the waiters
personally lit small tea light candles and dimmed the lights and the result is an ambiance that compliments the twilight in earnest. Simon Riveros asks for a beer as cold as ice, and the bartender, in response, smiled politely and says, “Right away. By the way, congratulations!”
“Thanks,” Simon says as he scratches the back of his head and takes a seat at the bar.
It is a bar frequented by the local up and coming writers. The clientele creates an environment of cloying intelligentsia as they quote David Foster Wallace and romanticize Bukowski zealously. The phrase “So it Goes” is employed as a wry commentary on the zeitgeist so often that it regularly crosses the line over into self-indulgent irony. Nevertheless, such phrases never fail to evoke knowing nods. Simon reveled in this novelty, but even he found it a bit ridiculous. Simon
was a regular and just recently had people learned his name.

“Hey, if it isn’t Mr. Simon Riveros, professional journalist extraordinaire. I read your
much anticipated article in the Times, and I loved every single word. The Times knew what they were getting when they invested in you.” Simon’s friend, the formerly fledgling writer, Mark Harris greeted him with a hearty hug. Mark had written three novels, all of which failed to remotely attract a single publisher until a year ago, when he received offers for all three novels from five different publishers. Prior to a year ago, all three manuscripts sat impotent while collecting dust in the bottom drawer of his
desk. In the past, when Mark solicited feedback on his work, he was unanimously told,
“Perhaps if you toned down the misogyny, your writing would be more palatable.”

Mark recoiled from such a suggestion as he felt his writing exuded a strength like Chuck
Kultgen and Ernest Hemingway.
“No one ever told Hemingway, hey dude, why don’t you give Zelda a break, yeah? Or
how about you not cheat on your wife? You know why? It’s the dominant hegemony, man. How’s that for a ten dollar word? Hegemony. Right it down. Totally hostile to the strong male voice.”
Mark refused to modify his work and insisted that, in due time, his work would come to be accepted. Popular culture would shift. And sure enough, he was right. However, Simon failed to recognize any semblance of a strong male voice in Mark’s writing. Instead, all he found was empty space as though Mark’s words weren’t substantial enough to occupy the page. But Mark was a dear, old friend of Simon’s. They went to the same high school, played on the same baseball team, were roommates in college and traversed the harrowed path to becoming professional writers. Thus, he never shared with Mark his actual thoughts on his writing, instead he simply offered the same plaintive statement: “I don’t deal in fiction, my friend, that’s your realm.”

The bartender placed Simon’s beer in front of him and disappeared before Simon could
thank him, “Too kind of you, buddy. But this is technically the my first publication of the article and …”
“Technically, I’m buying you a real drink.”
“Two Old-Fashioneds,” Mark said in the direction of the bartender as he sat down on the
bar stool next to him. It was Saturday night and the bar was packed. Mark called out his order once again to the bartender: two Old-Fashioneds. The bartender looked up at Mark, his green eyes colliding with Mark’s blue and he scowled. Mark had developed a reputation amongst the bar staff for his sexist rants and bellicose lack of humility. The staff resented him with a furious ardor. Mark, in his masculine repose, called out to the bartender again, “Did you hear me? Old fashioned.”
In response, the bartender, with his back turned, reached for the appropriate whiskey to
serve as the base of the old-fashioned. Sensing a subtle and unspoken challenge to his alpha status, he directed his intense and unwavering glare at the bartender. He called out to the short, skinny man, “Work fast, barkeep, I’m thirsty tonight.” Simon shook his head as he sipped on his beer, he’d seen Mark do this before.

Mark sat up straighter in his seat and continued, “You should be celebrating with us,
bartender. My friend, here, was just published in the Times. He’s a real journalist. He’s made it. In life. Living the dream. We should be so lucky to simply be in the same space as my friend here. Real talent, sitting right next to me,” Mark never took his eyes off the bartender.

“Hey!” He shouted and the patrons of the bar all turned to look at him. They weren’t surprised, though.
Mark Harris: Asshole writer of mediocre fiction.
“Did you hear me, barkeep? My friend here has got a real gift,” Mark scanned the
glowering faces of the patrons, “How long does it take to make an Old-Fashioned anyway?”

Mark watched as the bartender became anxious in his movements, at one point
dropping a cup of ice onto the floor. The bartender wiped his hands on his apron, avoiding Mark’s gaze and proceeded to pick up the cubes, one by one.
Simon swallowed the remainder of his drink and turned his head to cough. Mark was
starting to make him uncomfortable with his overt display of asshole masculinity.

“Now, your article!” Mark began loudly and abruptly as he turned his attention to Simon,
“couldn’t be more relevant and may I add, more necessary?”
“It’s definitely been a bit controversial. My editors already received a few disgruntled
emails. All unsolicited, of course, but, nevertheless. It definitely took a major swing at our feminists.”
“Ah,” Mark waved his hand dismissively, “Let those feminists with their hairy legs get
all riled up. I like them that way: Angry. Since Roe vs. Wade was struck down a month ago, the news has been flooded with feminist bullshit. I can barely tolerate it. I’m glad you’re the strong male voice on this topic. Put those liberal man haters to rest.”
“No one expected it to be reversed. Challenged, yes. But reversed? I didn’t think it would
actually happen,” Simon said.
“It’s a matter of civil liberty for men everywhere. Who says a woman should take that
right from us? The right to a life that we created! It’s long overdue. It was an archaic ruling and I’m glad it’s gone for good.”

The bartender handed Mark his drink without looking at him, but Mark could see his
hands were slightly trembling. “Well, thank you buddy,” Mark took a sip and said, “Boy, if this ain’t the best Old-Fashioned I’ve ever had. You, my friend, have a gift.”
Mark slid the other drink over to Simon. Simon put his beer aside and took a sip of the
Old-Fashioned, slightly recoiling at the bitter taste of Whisky. Then he said, “I wouldn’t be so cavalier about the loss of Roe vs. Wade, brother. It was the rule of the land for several
generations. Think about it, our great-great grandparents may have very well fought for it. I suppose the nation is entitled to a mourning period.”

“Hey, it’s just like you said in your column: As a nation, we have sacrificed so much of
the moral majority for the individual that the gestalt of society has simply gone astray. Down a self-centered, egocentric path. It was high time to start pulling away from the individual as it exists in isolation and instead in how it impacts society as a whole. I loved how you countered the right to motherhood with the right to fatherhood.”
“Let’s keep some perspective, buddy, I’m writing what sells. It doesn’t mean I actually
endorse these ideas.”
“It doesn’t?” Mark asked, his eyebrow raised.
“Well, it’s a complex issue. I’m not sure where I stand, exactly. I can see both viewpoints
from my vantage.”
“Okay, well, how does Julia feel about your article?”
Suddenly finding himself in a coughing fit, Simon responded, “She’s, you know,
struggling a little with the content. But she is happy that I am finally published and will see actual revenue for my little musings.” He beat his chest once with a closed fist and his coughing fit subsided.
“Oh boy. I know what that means.” Mark said, taking another sip of his drink.
“What does it mean?”
“It means never marry an actress, that’s what it means.”
“She’s a stage actress. It’s not like she’s a movie star.”
“If her tits were a cup or two larger maybe she would have a shot at the big screen. And
guess what? Now that you’re Mr. journalist hot shot, she’s going to be looking to you for the big bucks to finance said tit augmentation.”
“She is not,” Simon said, his dark brown eyes scanning the bar.

“Hey buddy!” Mark called out to the bartender, “Another one of those divine Old
Fashioneds, will ya?” He held up his empty glass.
Simon rolled his eyes and pulled Mark away from the bar and towards a booth, “Why do
you have to do that?”
Mark walked tall and confidently, his jet-black hair coiffed and his facial hair perfectly
groomed. “I’m telling you buddy; the world just recently became a good place for a man. A real good place.”

They talked for an hour and had two more whiskies. Simon enjoyed the company of his
oldest friend, even if he was a sexist and belligerent monster.
“Now that’s a fine piece of work. Look over there.”
Simon followed Mark’s brazen gaze to a woman who was sitting alone, sipping on red
wine and using a large black marker to fashion what appeared to be posters, like one would post when they are missing a pet. She appeared completely out of place, like an anachronism. The two men watched her as she gripped the clumsy marker in her right hand, her stroke was heavy and steadfast. After she was done with one, she quickly picked up another 11 x 15 poster board and began another.
“She’s okay, I guess,” Simon said looking down at his empty drink.
“You are obligated to be aloof and dismissive,” Mark said, still staring at the young
woman, “because you are married.”
“I am saying that because it’s true. She’s okay,” Simon said as he touched his wedding
band.

“I wouldn’t mind bending her over her table and giving her some of my Hemingway, you
know what I mean?”
Simon looked up at his friend, disgusted, “No, actually I don’t.”
Mark looked back at his friend and said in a firm tone, “Fucking. That’s what I am
talking about.”
Simon nodded his head and rolled his eyes in faux exasperation, “Of course, of course,”
he leaned in closer to his friend who had returned to his voyeurism, “You and I both know that you wouldn’t actually do that. It would kill Lyla if she heard you talk like that.”
“Lyla and I aren’t married,” he replied automatically.
“A matter of technicality. How long have you been living together?”
“Five years.”
“Half a decade, buddy. You’d never throw all that away for some woman at a bar. What a
cliché. A woman at a bar. I can’t think of anything more cliché than that. I really can’t.”
Simon was running his finger along the brim of his glass, watching his wedding band circling along and repeating, “cliché, cliché, cliché” under his breath when suddenly he heard Mark say,
“Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh shit.”
Simon looked over at him but before he could utter anything, he heard a voice, clear and
direct, like a lighthouse on a starless night, “How about a woman on a train?”
Before turning to see who was speaking, Simon read the paralyzed expression on Mark’s
face. Marks eyes widened and his mouth hung loose, like sun scorched fruit and Simon knew the voice he had heard belonged to a very beautiful woman. Women are select creatures that have the unique ability to render a man mindless and regularly speechless with basic proximity. Simon looked up and saw the woman speaking to them was the woman Mark had been ogling moments before. She stood before both men, looking down at them curiously.

He paused for a moment. The first thing he noticed was that her eyes were reminiscent of Seattle after a long, violent deluge. They appeared christened by the bright, luminesce of her skin the color of ivory. She wore a navy-blue skirt that was formed to fit her body exactly and fell to her knees. Her collared shirt was starched and white and tucked at the waist. A few buttons were left undone, lending a sensual element to an otherwise conservative ensemble. The last thing he noticed before responding was the gold band on her left hand.
“A woman on a train?” Simon asked as Mark took a long pull of his drink.
“A simple trope: a man meets the eye of a woman at a train station unexpectedly. Out of
the hordes of people, all heading somewhere, some destination that they aren’t all that excited about; maybe he’s heading home from work and wearing a suit and it’s got all those wrinkles you get from sitting down all day, and his face is downcast and he’s just trying to get from one day to the next, he’s just surviving, but when he meets the gaze of this woman, this mysterious woman, he’s suddenly alight. As if he’s just stepped off the metaphysical, existential train and onto this new journey, a new journey with her. The woman on the train. And they may never speak. But all it takes is that one gaze, happenstance, and it’s like magic. Metaphysical magic, of course.”

Mark looks at her ring and then back at her disdainfully and says, “That’s a whole lot of
bullshit about women and trains.”
Still looking at Simon, she replies, confidently and assuredly, “It’s a cliché.”
“I’m sure Tolstoy felt the same way,” Mark said. Expecting a response, he looked up at
the woman, however, she appears as though she didn’t hear him or, if she did, she didn’t care to respond.
Sensing some rebuff, Mark clears his throat and finishes his drink. Mark did not tolerate
dismissiveness, from anyone, especially a beautiful woman. Mark quickly devoured the glass’ contents and slammed the glass down so hard on the table that people in the bar turn to look. He could have very well smashed the glass into a million pieces and sent them cascading across the bar, and it still would not have broken Simon and Grace’s gaze.
Mark adjusted his jacket and said, “I’m not one for trains and clichés.”
“That’s too bad. Tolstoy would be so disappointed,” Grace said half-heartedly.
Mark took one more look at his friend and shook his head in disapproval. Before leaving
he said gruffly under his breath and through gritted teeth, “The world is supposed to be good for us now.”

Simon offered her Mark’s seat at the booth. She said her name was Grace and that this
was the first time she had been inside this particular bar. She’d chosen it after doing a quick internet search.
“You picked the busiest bar in the city to do work.” He looked over at the posters sitting
at her elbow. Grace blushed and tidied her stack for a second.
She shared that she’d always been active in her community, raising awareness for social
issues.
“I’m heading up a rally a few blocks from here about the Roe reversal. If I hadn’t gone
into medicine, I’d probably have been a professional protester.” She smiled.
“I just published an article in the times about the Roe reversal.”
“Did you? I’ll get to it. I usually read my news at night. You’re a journalist, then?”
“Well,” Simon fidgeted, “it’s complicated. This is actually my first publication.”
“Really?” Grace lit up, “Congratulations is in order. And in the Times, no less. I’m
impressed.” She said unalloyed.
“Well, thank you,” Simon finished the remains of his drink and said, “You said you are a
doctor? Now that’s impressive. What kind of doctor are you?”
Simon noticed something pass over Grace’s face, like a faint shadow, and that she hesitated before continuing.
“I was a trauma doctor. I worked at the level one trauma center at Los Angeles Medical
Center. But I just recently stopped practicing medicine. That would explain the time I have to do this.” She looked over at her posters again. She was nervous and she took another sip of her wine.
“A trauma doctor? Wow,” he said, “Why did you quit?”
Grace smiled, a suggestion of sadness creeping across her lips, “I didn’t quit. I’ve
decided to take time to devote to some medical research.”
“You mean like a scientist?” Simon inquired.
“Sure. But I wouldn’t want to be called a scientist.”
“Why not?”
“I feel that if I tell people I am a scientist they would think I work for NASA or
something. I don’t want people to think I’m an astronaut. I wouldn’t want to disappoint,” She said as he caught her eyes on his ring. Simon laughed, “I don’t think you are an astronaut.”
“You don’t think I could be an astronaut?” Grace said, feigning indignation, “I could be
an astronaut.”
Simon laughed kindly, “Really?”
Grace took a sip of her red wine and said, “Of course not. It’s fucking terrifying. Who’d
want to do that?” The gleam of her ring caught the light in the bar just right and glistened for a moment. She felt at ease and the nervousness she felt earlier seemed to vanish.

Simon watched as Grace took another sip and noticed the curve of her delicate lips and
how they gingerly kissed the wine glass. She wore no lipstick, and Simon preferred it that way. The natural color of her lips was a pale rosebud. He smiled at her, she looked up from her glass and smiled back at him, her face bright and young.
“So, this research that you’re doing. Are you going to cure cancer or something?” Simon
asked as she put her glass back down. The bar had dimmed its lights. People were seated and talking intimately, in gentle tones as they imbibed. A waiter came by and lit two small tea lights and placed them on their table. The glow from the candles was an effervescent champagne color.
“Everyone wants to cure cancer,” she said flippantly, “It’s very sexy.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone refer to cancer as sexy before.” He rested his hand
on his chin playfully and she finished her thought.
“I didn’t mean to be glib. I mean that it’s flashy and has captured everyone’s attention.
I’m interested in something else. Something a little bit more…” Her eyes ventured up to the ceiling as she searched for the appropriate word that would complete her sentence.

Simon appreciated the shape of her large eyes and the way they curved exotically towards the heavens, her eyelashes were lush, and her long hair was the color of warm chestnut. “Ethereal.”
Simon raised an eyebrow and said, “I see. Elaborate, please.”

She took a deep breath and began, “Being in the trauma room, I see a lot of death. That
shouldn’t be a surprise.

Over the past year, however, my encounters with death have….” she paused as she struggled for the right word to complete her sentence, “intensified. I’ve discovered a bulk of research devoted to the near-death experience. That moment where people report that they exist in two distinct realms. You know, the moment where people report heading towards the warm white light? These ephemeral moments are the ones I am currently studying.”
Simon sat up straight and was pensive for a few seconds as he reflected. In those quiet
moments, Grace realized that Simon’s skin was the color of honey. It looked like embedded on the surface of his skin were tiny gleaming flakes of gold. Microscopic, probably and encoded in his DNA was a sequence that made his skin produce these glittering deposits of gold. She thought his skin was something more than beautiful, it was a word she’d only read in books and never used in conversation. His skin, that glistened with gold flakes, was the epitome of the word pulchritude.

Grace took a deep breath and continued, “We are obsessed with this idea of linear
existence,” she was rolling the stem of her empty wine glass in between her index finger and thumb as she spoke. “As if life occurs isolation; in a vacuum of space. Life is a sequence of events that continues limitlessly. I don’t like the term sequence of events because that makes it time bound. What I mean to say is, it doesn’t stop. It goes on, in perpetuity, and is anything but linear. There’s no beginning and really, as I’m daring to posit, no end, it simply takes a different form.”
“Like reincarnation?”
“Not exactly. The best way I can explain what I’m researching is by describing a specific event. Are you ready to hear this?”

Simon nodded his head.

“Since becoming a doctor, I’ve bore witness to many deaths. However, about half way through my first year as an intern, I was on a string of cases where people reported being in a grey zone, either just before we called a code blue or right after we revived them. I had fifty-one consecutive cases in total and each one of those people we brought back. When they returned, they each described similar experiences of being in the grey. They all reported it was euphoric, warm, and that they had gained a kind of insight about their lives. They said it was transcendent, as though their life was forever changed and on a new path.”
“Wow. It’s like science fiction.”
“It piqued my interested to say the least. Then I suffered two major losses after number fifty one. After recording the experiences of those first fifty one patients and the devastating losses incurred right after has led me to studying near death experiences.”
“Can I ask you about the losses?” Simon ventured.
Grace ran her fingers though her hair, “I had a pregnant woman hemorrhage to death after going into labor in my trauma room. I was her doctor and when she came in, she was already crowning. I mean, this baby was coming, and it was coming fast. There was just one problem: the baby was breech and I was having trouble delivering him. She was also losing torrents of blood. Just before losing her, she shared something with me. Something that will remain with me for the rest of my life. As she was dying, she said she was finally in the grey.”
“Number fifty 52.”
“She said she finally made her way to the grey, where sounds are softer, and lights are
dimmer. She said she felt the presence of her family, but only felt, she couldn’t really see
anymore. As we continued to lose her, she said she wanted to be left alone in the grey and that she didn’t want to be saved. She said the grey was saving her. She said it was beautiful and sad and happy and terrible. Every possible human emotion was somehow contained in that space. In the grey.”

Grace flicked her eyes back up at Simon who was perched at the edge of his seat, his eyes wide and anxious for the rest of the story. “She died right after that. That’s the patient that chose the grey over everything else. Then, her baby died within five minutes of delivery.”
“Five minutes? Jesus,” Simon said as he ran his fingers through his fine wavy hair.
“Before she died, she told me the grey is one giant continuum of space. It’s boundless.
Limitless.”
“Are you interested in the afterlife?” he asked quietly.
She shook her head, rogue strands falling in her face. She pushed them away with her
hand and bit her bottom lip again before saying, “No, not at all. It’s definitively the grey that I’m interested in. The near death experience. I want to know what happens in the brain that leads us to that unique and specific gradient of life. I want to hear it. I want to understand it. Bring it home and connect with it.”
“Why?”
“Going back to my original point, life isn’t linear. It isn’t simply one thing going in one
direction. I think the grey might transcendent.” She got the attention of the waiter and ordered another Merlot.

“You ready for another round?” she asked casually as the waiter remained patiently at
their table. Simon cleared his throat, the story she had finished telling was disquieting. Noticing his discomfort, Grace reach out and touched the sleeve of his arm, “It’s not as macabre as it sounds. It’s just a different way of seeing things. It’s an opportunity to explore the outer limits of life and one step closer to connecting with the spectrum of experiences life has to offer us besides birth and death.”

Her touch brought him back. The story of the first fifty-one, the woman, the baby, the
grey, had silenced his thoughts. However, when she touched him, Simon instinctively felt the urge to reach out and embrace her simply to feel her close to him. . “Let’s do it.” he announced,
“Let’s do round two.” As he said this, he removed his ring and slid it into the pocket of his pants.

After round two, Simon grabbed Grace by the hand and said in his drunken haze, “Do
you want to know something about this bar?”
“I know that is a hot spot for pretentious writers,” she said. Grace had indulged in three
glasses of wine. She was a small woman and not accustomed to drinking copiously.
“Ouch!” Simon said as he feigned insult.
“Tell me something about the bar,” she said as she learned in towards him. They were
still sitting at the same booth, only now it was nearing midnight and the heat of the flame had turned the wax of the tea lights into liquid.
“You see that door right there?” Simon pointed to a door behind him. It was about ten
feet from them and painted gunmetal grey.
“I see it,” she said, her attention captured.
“Behind it is another bar. It’s called Fitzgerald’s.”
“As in F. Scott? I never realized how we are essentially surrounded in literary allusions.”
He smiled, “I highly recommend it.”

She looked over to the door, it was large, metallic, with some of the paint peeling off.
Nevertheless, something about it attracted her, suddenly she had an urgent need to know what was behind that door.
“But what about my posters?” She said abruptly as she looked over at the stack of papers
that were at her elbow. The work she was so engrossed in before she met Simon that night lay neglected at her side.
“They’re not going anywhere,” Simon said.

Grace looked up at the door and thought once more about the mother in the trauma room. Grace recalled how in perspicacious detail hers ashen face while she worked tirelessly to stop the bleeding. Grace remembered that it was in that moment, as she surveyed the bloody scene, that she knew her patient was going to die. The small hairs on Grace’s neck were erect as she sat in the booth at the bar, the candlelight dancing on her face.

Centering herself without taking her eyes off the grey door, Grace said, “Let’s find out what’s behind that door.”

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