Her name shone up at him from the reflections of neon lights in the puddles. He waited on the curb as the cars raced by, screaming threats and promises of violent, fiery, metallic death if he came too close. Crossing the street, he paused at the door, the wood grain twisting and shimmering invitingly. He might have stared at it forever, lost in his thoughts, but eventually the cold fingers of the rain running down his back convinced him to go inside.
He squinted against the bright, accusing lights. The technicolor chaos of the city outside was hard enough to handle, but this penetrating glare was almost too much. His eyes flicked rapidly across the posters on the back wall, searching for relief. On one of them, a buxom blonde woman with tears in her eyes offered him a cold beer. The caption read “It’s never too late.” On the next poster, a stylish man holding a martini — surrounded by three beautiful woman desperately grabbing at him — stared at his own reflection in a mirror. This one promised that “Things are only as bad as you make them.” Finally, on the last poster, a beer bottle sat embedded in the sand on the beach as the caption beneath broadcast the sage advice “Don’t forget the difference between can’t and won’t.”
The bartender nodded to him familiarly as he sat down at the bar alongside the others. He nodded back. All was silent for a moment, and then the others began to speak.
“My wife and daughter died in the fire I caused when I fell asleep smoking.”
“My uncle molested me when I was young, and now I can’t trust anyone.”
“I was changing the station on the radio in my car, and I hit and killed someone’s dog.”
“Nothing bad has ever happened to me, and I feel incredibly guilty about it.”
It surprised him that the others accepted this last statement without judgement, but he quickly recovered. Considering it, he came to the same conclusion they must have reached long ago — pain is pain, and it hurts just the same, no matter how stupid or pointless it might seem from the outside. Everyone had spoken now, except for him. He remained silent, unsure of whether or not he wanted to bare his soul to them tonight. They accepted that too. They’d all been here before; some of them came here every night. They knew how it works. He didn’t. But he was willing to learn.