It was 10pm on the most important night of the year for the most exclusive dive bar in the city.
There was no outdoor signage on the building, but the venue was called Mercury Retrograde, and tonight’s festivities were appropriately scheduled on the final night of an actual Mercury Retrograde, astrologically speaking.
And that synchronicity was reason enough, for the chic crowd tripping over themselves to get in, to celebrate hard and fast on (of all things) a weeknight.
Over the course of the evening, there would be many sagas and dramas. Some of these plotlines would intertwine with others.
The morning after, there will be many versions of the many stories that transpired. And none of them will be completely true because – what the hell is truth, anyway?
But this isn’t about the morning after. This is about that night.
This is about a time and place called Mercury Retrograde.
To those who believed in this sort of thing – or to those who wanted to believe – Mercury Retrograde was a time of both destruction and enlightenment. This cosmic phenomenon happens a few times a year, and with it comes technology failure, miscommunication, relationship breakdowns, the return of unrequited loves, the dissolution of contracts, and (of course) the breaking of promises.
In short – it is a horrible time.
But – it is also an important one.
After all, if we don’t periodically ruin what is safe and consistent in life, how will we ever know the thrill of what is too wonderful to see coming?
So, for this reason, Mercury Retrograde becomes the hero no one wants.
We love to blame the messenger for all our misfortune, when really it is often misfortune that liberates us.
Which is why it’s all the more important that the planets schedule this chaos into our calendars for us – otherwise, it would just never get done.
And tonight, it would finally all be over. This was cause for celebration – to drink, dance, indulge in loud live music, connect at the bar, reconnect harder in the gender-neutral restrooms – and in some cases, try to forget anything ever happened.
Speaking of the restrooms – Mercury Retrograde’s restrooms had been re-assigned as gender-neutral for almost a year now but, for the most part, what was once the women’s bathroom was still the women’s bathroom. Not because of exclusion, or tradition, or habit, or any of that sort of thing – after all, this was a very progressive and inclusive crowd. It’s just that sometimes a restroom is more than a restroom. And that can never change.
As pretty much everyone knows, women hold court in public restrooms in groups. Tonight, two enigmatic ladies held space. They were waiting for two more.
To some, they were witches. To others, they were angels. It depended on the eye of the beholder.
Eve was at the mirror, beholding herself, carefully applying a new lipstick. She wasn’t sure of the colour. But she felt it was important to try new things. She was confident of this, as she was confident about many things she had thought long and hard about.
Ivy was in the first bathroom stall, brazenly standing on the toilet seat – incredibly well-balanced for someone who was already two drinks in and wearing heels – writing on the wall tile with a Sharpie that was fast running out of ink.
“Another Retrograde, already…” whispered Eve, almost to herself.
“I know, right?” concurred Ivy. “I’m still walking funny from the last one.”
Eve grinned. She was relieved Ivy was making jokes, but she knew that was just her coping mechanism.
Ivy was intense and agitated, as she often was, but more so tonight. She was a truth-seeker at her core, and this made her brilliant but difficult to handle for most. Thus, she was a lonely creature, though she would never admit it, for she learned very young that it was better to be lonely than to be anything but a truth-seeker – and, she was far from very young these days, though you would never know it in that skirt.
“What time is it?” asked Ivy, her eyes unflinching from the important art she was creating.
“Not time yet. The band hasn’t started,” Eve answered, doing her best to ground her. Although it was the third time Ivy had asked her.
“They’ll be here when the band starts.”
“The band is late.”
“If they’re late and the band’s late, and they’re coming here when the band starts… then everything is on time,” reasoned Eve.
Ivy’s impatient breath could maybe set the walls on fire.
She stepped down from the toilet pedestal, and Eve – instinctively and as if on cue – handed her sister her drink, which was resting on the sink. Ivy drank, and reset the glass next to the poster warning about fetal alcohol syndrome.
“Should you be drinking in here? It’s not the most hygienic thing,” cautioned Eve, although she knew the answer that was coming.
“Don’t worry, I’m not a fetus,” bantered Ivy. She took Eve’s hand as she ascended the porcelain throne and resumed her sketching.
Outside the restroom door, the crowd rumbled, getting louder and more frenzied with each passing minute. Finally, the air cracked open, and the band kicked into gear.
Moments later, as if on cue, the door swung open, filling the restroom with an alien atmosphere filled with sounds and music. Then it swung shut again, sealing in three women.
Suzy had entered. She was a smallest of the trio, but she carried such great space and presence that it was always known to all when she entered a room. She often held this space for others when they couldn’t, for she was the most generous and kindest of the three. She also carried with her a very large handbag.
Excited greetings and hugs were exchanged. It hadn’t been long since they had last met, but it always felt like it was.
The door burst open again. It was their protégé, the Graduate. She was younger, in her twenties. Everyone liked her – she was light, breezy, kind, and sweet. She had an open sexiness many liked to think was accidental, but she and her bar mothers knew better.
On this night, the Grad was particularly bright and giddy, with the unmistakeable glow that can only be granted by pre-show cocktails (that were free because the bartender had a soft spot for her).
“Finally.” Ivy descended once more from her perch, with as much grace and precision as you can imagine from anyone standing on a toilet seat.
“I have important news,” Ivy launched right into it.
“Wait. We have news,” interrupted Suzy.
Ivy hated being interrupted. But her young Graduate was beaming with anticipation and happiness and for this reason alone, she backed down and let them go first.
And so, came the exchange of stories.
A man from the Graduate’s past had suddenly reappeared, without warning. It all started more than 5 years ago, although it could have been yesterday. He was the one that got away. The unfinished business. The long time coming. The One. He was in town for one night. She’s been on his mind and he had to see her.
The details came rushing out of her, falling over one another in a clumsy, non-linear fashion, but that was okay. The three women knew it all too well: missed signals, bad timing, lost love… all of it. So familiar, but so exciting every time it happened.
The Graduate and the old Flame had discussed meeting. It was just to be a brief encounter, of course. Nothing would happen, after all she was partnered now, with a Drummer – the very Drummer performing onstage in the music hall on the other side of the restroom door, as a matter of fact.
She would slip out for a few hours after the set, once the Drummer was settled into the after party with a few drinks and was completely preoccupied by his musician friends, as was his routine.
What could happen in a few hours?
Nothing would happen, she felt she should mention again, for some reason. And judging by the fire in her voice, it seemed she couldn’t wait for this supposed nothing to happen.
After all, she thought he had forgotten all about her. Dismissed her feelings as being all in her head. There was another girlfriend in the picture at the time. The timing was all wrong. Their friendship was too sacred. The distance was too far. She’d gaslighted herself into believing it could never be. And then, he was gone, destined to live in another city to pick up another life that had nothing to do with her.
The memory of him remained preserved in amber, perfect and ageless as the day they parted. There was no bitterness between them, it just couldn’t work out, not in this life. And despite the scars it left, it also inspired growth. Perhaps he was the reason – or one of the reasons – she seemed wise beyond her years. He had broken her heart, but he was worth it. Besides, she managed pretty well – broken or not.
And now, he was back.
And once again, just like that, the game was afoot.
The Grad felt as if the planets were grinding out of orbit to make all this happen. It was a cosmic feat designed for just two people out of the entire cosmos. Such an occurrence only happens once in several lifetimes, it would seem. Maybe she was having an existential moment, or maybe it was all just wishful thinking. But we don’t have to go into all that now; what’s important was the other story.
Eve took a moment to choose words that would be gentle and empathetic. But she took too long and Ivy jumped in.
“There is to be a proposal tonight,” she announced.
“A what?” Both Suzy and the Grad were taken back.
Eve facepalmed. Really, Ivy had no tact.
Ivy didn’t care. Eve was an overthinker, in her opinion. Which was often practical, but these were not practical times.
Earlier that night, when Ivy was deeply contemplating her newest artwork in the stall, behind a closed door, she overhead the male band members come in to use the gender-neutral facilities.
“Tonight’s set has five songs. After the fifth number, he’s calling you up on stage and presenting you with a ring…” she reported to the Grad.
“The Drummer? He’s finally committing!” Suzy was happy for the Grad.
“…with a really small stone!” Ivy was not so happy.
“And just in time,” said Suzy, being encouraging.
“I can’t believe it,” stammered the Grad. She had been with the Drummer for almost 5 years – this is what she wanted, right? It was unusual because he normally wasn’t one for grand gestures. Or big decisions. “He won’t go through with it,” she stated factually.
“I think he will this time. It’s so romantic!” Suzy was always hopeful and ready to celebrate.
“No – not romantic! This is terrible.” Ivy didn’t like the Drummer. He was wishy-washy and indecisive. “You can’t leave after the set. You need to go now.” She started shoving the Grad out the door. “I’ll cover you.”
“Wait.” It was Eve’s turn. She liked the Drummer. He was deliberate and contemplative. “Are you really willing to throw this proposal away just to satisfy your curiosity for one night with this… this other guy? This random old Flame from the past? Does any of this sound irrational to you?” She looked in Ivy’s direction. Ivy ignored her, and returned to the bathroom stall to tend to her graffiti.
Suzy rummaged through her giant purse and took out a knitting project. Knitting helped her focus. But the needles and yarn were tangled into a big messy ball. Everything was a mess.
“I’m just going to see him for a couple of hours. Nothing’s going to happen,” promised the Graduate.
And if by “nothing”, she meant say all the unsaid things, and feel all the unfelt feelings, then by all means “nothing” was going to happen.
“Then you should go to him – now,” proclaimed Ivy from the bathroom stall.
“What if something does happen?” Suzy asked softy.
“Then she should go to him!” Now Ivy was shouting.
The first song ended, followed by thunderous applause.
Two fights broke out. No one knew why.
A fiery anthem filled the air.
“She can say no to the proposal if she wants to,” reasoned Suzy.
“In front of all those people?” Ivy exclaimed.
Percussion throbbed in the next room – drum solo.
“She can’t do that. It’s not her nature. It would humiliate him.” As usual, Eve was right.
“I couldn’t do that to him,” the Graduate agreed.
“Of course not. You’re too kind. And, you love him too much,” reasoned Suzy.
“She doesn’t love him,” Ivy was drinking again.
“They’ve been together almost 5 years,” rationalized Eve.
“Time is irrelevant, you know this to be true,” Ivy challenged.
“It’s still the wrong thing to do.” Suzy was solemn.
“Lying to herself is not doing him any favours.” Ivy was right.
“Why is this happening now?” The Grad’s head was swimming. Those suspiciously generous pre-show cocktails suddenly felt like a misguided idea. All she had wanted to do was cut loose a bit tonight. Drink, dance, laugh at stupid things… it had been a long boring week at work and she’d earned the right to be loud and thoughtless.
How she longed for boring now.
Of all the nights for the Drummer to propose.
Of all the nights for the Flame to re-materialize.
Was this a cosmic joke? Was someone or something fucking with her? Was she really that important in the grand scheme of things? Did the Heavens have nothing better to do on this night?
Turn down the Drummer, or stand up the Flame. Kindness was her mantra and now she was being forced into being the asshole.
One way or another, she would have to hurt someone.
It was unfair.
The Grad was obviously struggling so Ivy stepped up with an attempt to clarify things in her special way.
“Here’s why this is so terrible.” The ink in Ivy’s pen had run out. And, so had her patience. She dismounted once more from her pedestal, the toilet.
“He’s manipulating you – can no one see this? He knows you won’t be able to say anything but yes in front of all those people. If you don’t leave now, you’ll be trapped like a circus animal on display.”
“I think he’s just trying to be romantic,” interjected Suzy.
“Who cares?” retorted Ivy.
“I think intentions are important to address here…” said Eve.
“His intentions are he’s an asshole,” blurted Ivy.
There was no pause between songs this time.
The band launched right into their third number. They were now almost halfway through their set. Time was running out.
“Let’s approach this logically,” offered Eve, feeling the pressure.
“Good idea!” said Suzy, who was always so supportive.
Ivy sighed – very loudly. Eve and Suzy continued without her.
“It’s natural to be curious,” ventured Suzy. “The road untravelled. What could have been. Your emotions won’t last, but your actions will. Whatever it was, it ended 5 years ago for a reason. Hold onto that.”
“He came back for a reason too!” Ivy murmured into the bottom of her glass. No one listened but the cocktail.
Suzy pressed on, nonetheless. “5 years is a long time. You stayed with the Drummer for a reason.”
Had it been 5 years already, though? It was easy to stay on course for 5 years. Breaking out of orbit for one night was hard. But we reward longevity over impact.
People stay together sometimes because it’s effortless. Is “easy” really a good reason?
“What if you saw him, and just got it out of your system?” Eve tried to help. “I’ll bet if you met him, you’d see right away it was a mistake. An appealing mistake, but a mistake.”
Suzy was uncomfortable with where this was going. “Or, you’ll tempt fate and risk everything for something that was doomed to fail from the start. There is no guarantee here.”
“And? So what? What’s the big deal if it’s doomed?” Ivy might have been a little drunk by this point. Then again, maybe she wasn’t. It was hard to tell sometimes with Ivy.
“There is much to be said about doomed romance,” Ivy was off the toilet but on her soapbox now. “All great loves end one way or another, death or otherwise. No one gets to say how or when. What matters is how they affect you and change you. Love affairs are just transient moments in your life, what matters is that you have them.”
The restroom went quiet.
Suzy became fidgety. She had been trying to de-tangle the yarn and needles from her giant handbag but they seemed to be getting more ensnared the more she tried.
“Why would you bring knitting to a music hall?” Eve finally had to ask.
“It keeps me calm in the taxi. Helps me think.” Suzy thought a lot, perhaps too much. But it came in helpful when others wouldn’t think enough.
“What are you making here anyway?” Eve wasn’t trying to be a jerk, but…
“It’s going to be a hat.”
“Are you sure?” It didn’t look like a hat.
“It’s a hat,” Suzy insisted.
“You can call it what you want, that doesn’t change what it is,” reasoned Eve.
The audience roared on the other side of the door. Someone dropped a tray of glasses. The next song was quiet and sentimental, but heavy.
“I feel so sick,” said the Graduate. She started to cry. She didn’t want to hurt anyone. She’d much rather hurt herself.
But it was time to grow up and stop thinking of other people, for once. Because that was a cop-out. That was an excuse to live life for others and not take responsibility of her own life.
What it all came down to was how she was going to feel in the future, perhaps lying on her death bed as an old woman. Or a much younger woman in a hospital bed. Or a split second before she got struck by lightning – it really didn’t matter how it ended or even when it ended.
The question was – would she wonder what it was like if she married the Drummer? Or met the Flame in the parking lot?
Which pain would burn through her harder?
Tears fell from her face and the three ladies formed a protective space around her.
Eve motioned gently to the first stall. “Take a moment for yourself.”
The Graduate closed the door behind her so that she was alone, while she sobbed and purged. Ivy’s calligraphy on the wall, in magnificent black marker, were the undeniable words…
WAS IT WORTH IT?
And really, that’s all that matters in the end.
You might win. You’ll probably lose. But, was it worth it?
The sad song ended. There was a brief, respectful moment of silence. And then, the anthem launched – it was the final number.
It was time for action.
The tangle of yarn and purse innards had become too much. Ivy offered a small Swiss army knife. Suzy sadly conceded. Ivy made the cut, and all was free.
And now, it was time for the Graduate to cut.
“We shouldn’t have said anything,” lamented Suzy. “Our poor girl.”
“This will pass, as does everything,” reasoned Eve.
“My glass is empty,” observed Ivy. Time for a refill. Time to leave the restroom.
The Graduate emerged from the stall. She was different now.
Whatever the decision, the consideration of the decision had changed her.
The witches cleaned her face, straightened her dress, and gave her enough cash for a cab ride in case she’d need it later, regardless of where she decided she was going. They ushered the Graduate into the music hall and perhaps veered her slightly towards the bar. She was out of the womb now, and out of their care. A brave new warrior, walking into battle.
It was strange, because earlier that day, the Grad remembered she couldn’t wait to dive into Mercury Retrograde and lose herself for a few hours, in the drinks and music, and people, and darkness of it all.
And now, as she emerged from the restroom and the final bars of the last song filled her, she held onto to herself for as long as she could.
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