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Forever Young

An old man walks north under shape-shifting clouds of dark grey. He bares his teeth against the sharp wind and frosty rain. He struggles to maintain his grip on the slippery base of his black umbrella. The skin of his right hand is raw and chapped, while his left stays warm in his coat pocket. In his current physical condition, he would be far more handsome in death. Every step he takes is a weak, hesitant battle against crippling exhaustion. After each hopeless pace, black spots pulse behind his eyelids and travel in spiky currents to his brain, jumping from cell to cell in a fickle tap-dance before carefully selecting his coherent thoughts and morphing them into unintelligible nonsense. He wears his solitude like a burial shroud.

Every night, this man goes to sleep hoping to dream of whiskey. He was stripped of his one indulgence, sweet long sips and gentle burning throat, forgotten identity and pain dulled, by a single sheet of paper bearing grim test results. Still, he goes to sleep every night with the vain expectation of one last taste. Instead, he dreams of the young widow down the street, the one he watches from his kitchen window every morning as she slinks to her car. In those dreams, they sit at a bar that is barren of all alcoholic beverages no matter how many times he searches its cabinets. The bartender cleans the countertop with an old rag, staring straight ahead with empty eyes. The old man tries to get his attention to ask where the whiskey is kept. The bartender never responds. As the old man and the widow sit in a booth together, she tells him she doesn’t miss her husband, but she misses his warmth. She misses his body. The man always wakes up in a shame-filled sweat.

Now, he rests at a park bench. He sneaks a sideways glance at the young man sitting beside him. This young man is talking on a cell-phone in a loud and nervous voice. His hand shakes as he takes a drag of his cigarette. The flame devours the tobacco in greedy swallows before being smothered by a thin drop of rain.

“Can I please see you?” the boy asks the small device. An angry murmur buzzes in reply. The old man turns his attention away from the boy and to his pocket, from which he draws a worn piece of folded newspaper whose creases resemble the texture of his own skin. His hands tremble as he unfolds the paper. A red circle is drawn around a small personal ad that cowers between two larger advertisements for adoptions. The old man glances beside him and, satisfied by the boy’s lack of attention, rises. He begins to approach the red brick building across the street, marked with a large thirty-two, when the boy calls out to him.

“Hey, mister!” he shouts. The old man turns. The boy hangs up his phone and says, “Got a light?” The old man shakes his head and continues on toward the building.

He rides the elevator to the third floor and follows a narrow hallway whose floorboards creak and whine. He finally reaches a rusty metal door. He pauses for a moment before gently knocking. On the third knock, the door opens a crack. The old man can make out a brown eye in the otherwise dark slit of the doorway.

“Yeah?” a young man says impatiently.

“Oh, uh,” the old man clears his throat. “I’m here about the, um, the advertisement in last week’s newspaper.” His admission is met with silence. He clears his throat. “About the, uh…the medicine.” The door opens without another word, and the old man walks inside.

The apartment is messier than any other living quarters the old man had ever seen. Every surface is covered with dirty socks, t-shirts, pants, underwear, pizza boxes, shoes, paper, plastic bags, cans, take out food, undershirts, and three dogs that barely bat an eye when the old man enters. As he scours the living room for an empty space to sit, a young Indian man comes from another room with a cardboard box.

“I’m Sasha,” he says as he shoves one of the dogs off of a chair. He puts the cardboard box there and takes a piece of pizza from an almost empty box. “What is it you’re looking for, again? Opium? MDMA?” The old man clears his throat again, embarrassed.

“No. I’m here for the pill. The one that will make me young again.” The Indian man stares at him for a second before bursting into loud, disconcerting laughter. The old man fears that he’s made a foolish mistake and begins to rise when the young man motions for him to stay.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” the Indian man says, still chuckling. “It’s just that I didn’t think anyone would answer that ad. You really want to be young again? For what, anyway? Can’t get it up anymore?” He breaks into another round of laughter.

“Why wouldn’t—never mind. I have the money. Can I have the pill?” the old man says. The Indian man shrugs his shoulders and leaves the room, chuckling quietly and shaking his head. He returns with a small envelope and hands it to the old man.

“It lasts for a few hours. You might be kind of sore tomorrow morning, but other than that, you should be fine,” he says. The old man extracts a wad of bills from his coat pocket and hands it to the Indian man, and then leaves as quickly as he can. He grows lightheaded from walking at such a brisk pace, and by the time he reaches the bench, black spots have once again begun to muddle his thoughts. He looks around him in the brief moments where his vision is unobstructed and sees that he is quite alone. He spends a few minutes generating saliva in his mouth, carefully extracts a small grey pill from the envelope, places it on his tongue, and swallows it. He sits and waits.

He sits impatiently, sporadically checking his hands for any sign of renewal. He wipes his eyes and smoothes his hair. The wait is an excruciating pain in the pit of his stomach. He looks to his side and sees an abandoned tabloid. He picks it up and flicks through the first few pages before throwing it into the street. The thin magazine barely clears the sidewalk, yet he is winded by the effort. Finally, the old man blacks out.

When he awakens, he is slumped downward on the bench and a young woman stands over him.

“You okay?” she asks bemusedly. He opens his mouth to reply and is shocked at the ease with which he is able to intake oxygen. The fresh coolness travels swiftly through his mouth. It moves quickly down his spine and renews his bones and muscles.

“I’m fine,” he answers. His voice is steady, young. His vision is clear; he can appreciate the subtle contours of the girl’s coffee colored face. “Do you mind directing me to the nearest bar?”

At the bar, he orders a whiskey neat. While he waits for the bartender to fetch his drink, he thinks about what he could do with the next couple hours. The options swell forward and overwhelm him until he can no longer think of anything but the whiskey that has just been placed in front of him. He takes the glass in his hand and examines it, admiring the amber ocean within. He brings it slowly to his mouth. The liquid barely grazes his lips when he catches the eye of a young girl across the bar. He had forgotten what it was like to be looked at, really looked at, and the rediscovered pleasure of attention made his first sip even sweeter.

“I’ve never seen you here before,” the girl calls out just as the man redirects his eyes downward.

“Oh?” the man asks. It takes a moment to gain control of the heated blush creeping up his neck. “Is that abnormal?”

The girl smiles, and the skin around her eyes crinkle in a pleasant way. As she walks over, she takes her time, giving the man a chance to examine her more closely. He can’t identify a single insecurity in her narrow hips and her pale blonde hair reminds him of sand in the winter.

“Well, I’m a bit of a regular, so I usually recognize most of the people who come here,” she smiles and says tentatively, “especially the ones who sit alone at the bar on a Sunday afternoon.”

The old man laughs, and when he realizes how pleasant it is, how enjoyable the simple act of enjoying himself can be, he laughs again.

“What’s so funny?” the blonde asks, starting to laugh as well. Her eyes are the same color as his whisky and her lashes are long.

“Nothing,” he says. “Nothing at all. So, tell me then, why are you here all alone on a Sunday afternoon?”

“I work the night shift on Sundays. I’m an intern at the hospital,” she says proudly, averting her eyes all the same.

“So you’re training to save lives. Humble occupation,” the man says. The girl smiles as she traces the rim of her beer glass with her pinky.

“So,” she says, eyes still down. “What do you do then?” The man frowns slightly. She finally looks up and he readjusts his features.

“I am a car insurance salesman,” he says. In his younger age he was, of course, an artist, but he had since forgotten how to speak of something so close to his heart. He gives her a thumbs up. She laughs.

“Sounds absolutely stimulating,” she says with a wide smile.

“Oh, it is, it is,” he replies. They’re silent for a moment. “Well, I should get going…”

“Didn’t mean to keep you. Be on your way, car insurance salesman,” she says, sipping her beer. He takes a deep breath.

“Do you, uh…” he clears his throat. “Do you want to go for a walk? You know, keep talking…” she stares at him so incredulously that he fears for a moment that the pill had already worn off.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I really am,” she says, and she seems just as sorry as she says. “But I can’t, I don’t really think I have time…”

“Totally fine,” he says. He nurses his wounded pride with another sip of whiskey. “Don’t you worry about it.” He smiles as a farewell and drains his glass before walking out of the bar.

As he finishes the last sip in his glass, he couldn’t imagine going back from this. To be young again and have to sacrifice his limber muscles and quick wit for the atrophic body that housed his ancient self would be an incomprehensible task.

He leaves the bar thinking of his wife, who had faithfully made him scrambled eggs earlier that day as she did every morning. He wonders if she would really miss him if he were gone, or if she would miss his warmth, his body. He can’t think of an answer.

“Hey! Wait!” a sweet voice beckons, and he turns around to find the blonde running toward him in a clumsy gallop. He can’t keep a smile from his face as she approaches him.

“You, uh,” she says, breathing heavily. She smiles, embarrassed. “You can come back to my place, though.”

In her apartment, their kisses are heavy and drawn out. Their tongues dance shyly around each other, neither one wanting to offend the other. Eventually, the heat blinds them and they feel each other’s searing skin without seeing each other clearly. They make love and it is not quite as good as he had hoped but it is better than anything he had ever had before. Afterward, she makes him a cup of coffee. His first swallow is bitter, but a dash of cream makes it as sweet as can be.

His slow pace is deliberate now as he walks down the sidewalk. He passes the park bench where he sat earlier and sees the boy with the cell phone and the coffee skinned girl in a warm embrace. He smiles at the busy web of connection that is the universe and walks on.

As he rediscovers the ease with which his legs can move and the acuity with which his ears can hear, he is grasped with a vague sense of déjà vu brought on by his previous encounter with his own youth that he only dimly recognizes. It is as if he had walked down a road once a long time ago and been struck by its general beauty, and upon revisiting the path, discovered each and every flower and tree that made it so. The whiskey still burns in his stomach with a heat that melts his insides, softening the edges of all sorts of gaping holes in his heart that had been there for years. He lets his feet guide him and ends up at a bridge hundreds of feet above a quarry that rainwater has turned into a shallow river.

The old man turned young climbs on top of the metal barrier meant to keep cars from driving over the edge. He looks closely at the lines of his palms, so new and alive. He thinks of the time elapsed since his current body’s birth and sees nothing more painfully ephemeral than youth. He spent his early years so tantalizingly full of potential that he never took advantage of because he assumed it would always be there. His dreams gave way to hopelessness by age 30, greed replaced desire by age 50, and shriveled bones replaced nimble limbs by age 70.

The old man does a graceful swan dive down toward the quarry and smiles at the strength with which his body resists the air.

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