It would end, like it started, in an empty room.
Oh sure, it hadn't always been this way. I remember back in the not so distant past being proud that I didn't have any close friends, that I was a free man able to do what I wanted when I wanted. I didn't have to worry about dealing with someone elses problems, and I didn't have to ask permission. I was, in my own way, happy then.
But that kind of freedom doesn't last, does it?
I recall the day I first met her, at the club. I had arrived before the crowd so it was just me, the bartender, and one person idly playing pool alone. I ordered a beer and took my usual spot, creature of habit that I was. I sat back, took a long drink, and tried to relax.
The music started - some heavy metal tune, I can't recall which of her favorites it was any more - and she went up on stage to dance. I had been going to the club for about 4 years at the time and I knew most of the girls, and it was obvious she was new. She still had the self-consciousness of someone not used to dancing in a bikini in front of people. Even then, she was beautiful, with mid-length blonde hair, an amazing smile, and eyes like emeralds. I watched her, because even with the awkwardness of not being used to the stage she had a grace about her that was very attractive.
When she came offstage, I tipped her and asked her name. She said she was Athena, and she came back after making the rounds to collect tips from the other customers that had drifted in. We sat and talked for some time, she was as intelligent as she was pretty, speaking several languages and having extensive experience in many different areas. I found her fascinating.
Needless to say, I kept coming back to see her. One night, when I had stayed late, she offered to give me a ride home (at the time I didn't have a car). I was surprised, since my experience with many of the other dancers was that they were nervous being near customers outside the club. I told her this, and she just laughed and said that she knew I was safe and that I had a reputation as one of the "really nice guys".
We ended up stopping at an all-night restaurant so she could get something to eat, and this is when I learned that she was diabetic. It was the serious variety, she had to take insulin all the time in order to keep from going into shock. She didn't make a big deal about it, just mentioning it, but I decided to pry and asked about it. It turns out she had many other problems, all of which she shrugged off as not worth worrying too much about. I hope I can be that brave now.
We saw each other on and off over the next five years, and what started out as a very casual association turned into a friendship. She invited me to her place, and I took her out to dinner in return. She was a patient woman, dealing with my nervouness at the time with grace. One night, when she took me to her favorite bar, I ended up hitting the table and spilling beer on her twice! She simply changed clothes and kept on going.
God I love her and I miss her now. The pain is just too much.
Over time I learned more about her, and as with any two people that spend time together I saw her in both sickness and health. It became very obvious that she knew the disease would take her eventually and that she would live a relatively short life, but she never let it stop her. She travelled extensively, experiencing as much of life as she could manage given her circumstances. The ups and downs of her life sometimes caused her to withdraw, but she would always talk to me no matter her circumstances.
I fell in love with her. I should have expected it, but it pretty much blindsided me. I'm not a people person and I don't make friends easy, I prefer to hold myself away from that (for various reason) and when I felt that warm flush, looking into her face and suddenly realizing that I would do anything I could to make her happy, I was lost.
I was afraid to tell her, I mean, surely as beautiful as she was everyone in the world that met her fell in love with her. One night, while she was dancing for me and I was looking into her eyes, she stopped and said: "You're in love with me, aren't you"? I admitted it, there's just no way I could lie to her.
Our relationship was odd, to say the least. We were never lovers but we were (for want of a better term) emotionally and intellectually intimate. I don't think there's any subject we didn't discuss, and she shared the ups and downs of her life with me, as I did with her. She never judged me for what I did or was, and never tried to change me. I respected her for that a great deal. I can still recall every time she ended up breaking up with a boyfriend, she'd come in to the club and sit down and we'd talk about it, and she'd seem somewhat happier afterwards. Every time I was going through a difficulty, I'd come in and she'd sit and listen, and if I asked for advice she'd give it.
The one thing that never was settled was how she felt about me other than as a friend. What kind of relationship did she expect to have with me? I felt I was getting conflicting signals.. one day physical, the next platonic. Finally, one night over dinner, I had the 'relationship discussion' with her, and she said she wasn't really sure what she wanted but to just keep it platonic for now, that she liked me a great deal but wasn't in love with me in return.
I broke. If I had any idea that I would collapse the way I did I'd never have mentioned it in the first place and simply gone on avoiding the topic and dealing with the ambivalence of the situation. I'm not good at taking things like that, I felt rejected even though I wasn't. I pulled away from her for a time, the love turning to hate and anger.
This is one of the things I regret most in my life, and there are damn few things I regret.
I avoided her for a long time, and I'm sad to say I wasn't that nice the times that I ended up running into her. It took me a while, even with the prodding of some mutual friends, to get a grip on myself and realize that her friendship was more important to me than whether or not she was in love with me. I worked on my problems, and after a time had resolved things inside myself enough to approach her again.
I was afraid, I admit. If I were her I'd never talk to me again, but I apologized to her for how I had been, and we talked it out. We managed to reconcile, and reached the point where we could be friends again.
She had gone on a trip to Scotland with a friend, and when she came back we had started making plans to go out to dinner. She wanted to show me the pictures she had taken, and I was looking forward to spending time with her again.
I took time off of work then to settle some lingering personal issues and take care of some things that had been getting urgent. I went to the club on Sunday, after I had finished up some important tasks, to see her and schedule things. I didn't have her phone number any more as I had deleted it from my cell phone and thrown the paper copy away when I was angry with her, so I couldn't call, and despite the fact that she had said I could drop by her place any time I felt strange about showing up unannounced. She wasn't there, and in fact nobody was sure where she was. I didn't think anything of it at the time, since somedays she doesn't feel well and stays home.
I came down with a cold and ended up staying at home, sleeping. Late Wednesday night as I lay in bed, my cell phone started going off again and again. The time is burned into my mind.. 10:20pm.. when I pulled myself out of bed to see what was going on. A mutual friend, Trish, had left several messages on my phone, all of them telling me to call her right away, and that she was going to keep trying until she reached me.
I was afraid something had happened to Trish. I like Trish, she's an interesting person and we had been spending more and more time together over the past weeks while Athena had been on travel. I called her back, she said to come down to the club right away as she couldn't tell me what was wrong on the phone. She was crying.
I got there and came in, noticing that most of the dancers were standing around looking shell-shocked. I went over to Trish, who took me off into the corner and gave me the news. I went numb.
Athena had passed into a diabetic coma at home, and her room-mate had come home at 3:00am to discover her unconscious. They took her to the hospital, but it was too late. She passed away sometime Monday, October 20, 2003.
I don't recall how long I spent crying. I drank a lot, as it seemed everyone was doing. I couldn't believe it. I mean, we had jokingly talked about it, that she would die and her cats would eat her before anyone found her, but I didn't seriously think it would ever happen. She was just always there, and I never thought of her as anything other than being there.
There was a wake for her Saturday. I managed to pull myself together long enough to attend, but I was shattered. Those of us that knew her from the club ended up sitting together, and we spent most of our time crying. Someone had collected pictures of her and make posters for everyone to look at, I couldn't make it through all of them.
So here I sit, alone again, but not by choice. The hard fact has been brought home to me, that I need someone like her in my life, but she's been taken away and there's no-one left for me now. Each hour flows over me like acid, eating me away. The pain doesn't stop, even drinking doesn't numb it any more. I'm not strong enough to go on, I can't live with this and I know it will burn away at me forever. There's really only one sure and permanent cure.
I'm waiting for darkness.