The Other-Whens

The Other-Whens

A Story by Sean M. Palfrey

A man convereses with his past selves.


I had come to the point that every man comes to. Where he must ask himself “Do I hate myself because I don’t like myself”, or “Do I hate myself because I’m not perfect in her eyes?” Inevitably the latter statement will always be the truest. The stress of living together had taken it’s toll as the fantasy didn’t match the reality of the situation. For the last few month’s the space “we” were giving each other began to feel a lot more like I was being held at arms length… just in case.
The night was already shaping up to be a disaster: I intended to meet Lucy at eight this evening but it was closer to nine by the time she had arrived. She immediately fobbed me off with an excuse about the weather or traffic, I forget which. In any case the weather was amicable and the traffic was surprisingly light for London on a midsummer‘s evening - I figured most of most of the capital‘s couples would be enjoying the sight of the sun setting from Hampstead heath before a romantic stroll past John Keats’ former home, and into a restaurant (not unlike this one) for an intimate meal. While waiting for her I’d managed to drink most of a bottle of red wine already, so I let her choose another. Burgundy, 1959 - A vintage year. Of course, this evening would still be expensive.

She was wearing the blue dress I’d bought her two Christmases ago, that same dress she swore she couldn’t quite fit into until tonight, and a black jacket, that she refused to check in at the cloak room. She eyed-up the bottle and sighed under her breath. I couldn’t shake the feeling that tonight would once again be a disaster, and entirely my fault - and I would wonder for days what went wrong to no avail.
‘You look nice dear.’
‘You know I don’t like being called that in public.’
‘Sorry…you’re finally wearing the dress I bought you.’
‘I thought I should wear it at least once.’ I swallowed each of her dismissive comments until they sat heavily in my stomach and made me sink into my seat.
The waiter came over with the new bottle of wine and motioned me to taste it, instead I motioned Lucy try it. When she finally approved the waiter poured us a glass each and gave us the menus. She would choose the soup, duck and sorbet; and I would have the salad, steak and cheesecake, as always. She would complain how full she is after every course and still eat what was left of mine, and I would smile and nod, as always.
I’d been here before.
‘How have you been?’
‘Busy. One of the heads of our department died, so everyone is competing for promotion. What about you?’
‘I’m still teaching at the college, writing my column, and working on some poems for a new book.’
‘Good, good… Sarah’s getting remarried.’
‘Who to?’

‘Mark, her divorce lawyer.’
‘Is that ethical?’
‘He bought her a big ring. It has a three carat diamond.’
‘Well, that’ll do it.’ The wine helped to moisten the dry pleasantries.
The first course came and we ate in silence. Everyone else in the restaurant talked while they ate and we didn’t. Happy couples, friends, business associates, casual acquaintances and us. I tried to justify the silence to myself - she was trying not to slurp her soup or spill any down her front, and I was trying to avoid flicking the dressing on my salad. But after the first course it was a struggle to restart the conversation, a struggle that everyone around us could hear.
‘That soup was filling.’
‘It looked homemade. Very… chunky.’
‘Yeah.’ We stared at our empty table, and everyone did their best not to gawk at the car crash playing out in slow-motion before them.
The pianist made his way over to his instrument and began to play a bland little background melody to the approval of a business meeting in the far corner. I let my eyes wander around the room, scanning the clientele and the staff, stopping occasionally on a pretty girl. Lucy was probably doing the same, but looking at the men. We made eye contact; she was embarrassed and jealous, and I decided on more wine. The waiter approached and swiftly returned with a bottle. Lucy rolled her eyes in disapproval. I tried to savour the first taste but Lucy’s disapproving eyes wouldn’t let me enjoy it. The second course was served and we were relieved to be able to be silent again, without feeling neglectful. The pianist began to play something I vaguely recognized as a song, and the businessmen were getting drunker and louder.
To avoid the same post-course pleasantries, I went to the washroom and sat in a cubicle until I felt it would be about the right time for the final course to arrive. I washed my hands as I was leaving and caught sight of myself in the mirror. My reflection stood static, shaking my head until I exited. When I rejoined Lucy the final course had arrived. She was twisting her napkin.
‘I didn’t want to start without you.’ Politeness made her lie.
‘Thanks.’ Guilt made me answer.
We ate, once again without speaking, and it drove me crazy. Afterward I was ready to pay the bill and leave with my dignity and the knowledge my marriage was dead. Until Lucy finally vocalised the question she’d been dancing around all night.
‘Look I know this might be a bit forward but I was wondering if you fancied coming back home tonight?’ I was taken by surprise and must have mumbled something resembling a yes, as we then sped towards her place in a taxi with her head on my shoulder. We entered through the front door and she led me up to her bedroom. The house felt alien to me, I hadn’t been near it in six months, not even to pick her up for our few so-called dates, despite still paying the mortgage on it. I asked her where the bathroom was before remembering it was the second door on the right. She laughed and went into the bedroom and through to the en suite. I walked into the bathroom and sat on the edge of the bath for a few moments, trying to plan ahead, before turning the sink taps on. I looked in the mirror and my reflection looked back with judgemental eyes.
‘What are we doing?’
‘We don’t want to be here.’
‘No. Not now, not with her… it’s over.’
The man in the mirror blinked and touched his face. He was roughly shaven with lines where there never used to be lines. Some longish hair flopped down one side and he hid it behind his ear - who was he trying to kid? I reached out to touch him, and felt his hand on my face. I could hear romantic music come on in the other room. I turned back to the man in the mirror for guidance. But he stared back at me with the same look of panic I could feel welling up inside my gut.
‘We can’t go through with this. We’ve danced with her too long, it’s time to go now.’
‘She’s waiting for me.’
‘It doesn’t matter, she’ll survive.’
The man in the mirror was younger now; his hair was shorter, he had a goatee and less lines on his face. He turned his face to profile, studying his new found self.
‘I remember you. You used to be me, didn’t you?’
‘Possibly… I’m still myself, and you’re someone else.’
‘Was I happy?’
‘Is anyone ever truly happy?’
‘I remember I did that a lot.’
‘Answer questions with questions. A twisted logic to avoid being asked anymore questions.’
‘You’ve seen through my plan.’
‘It was my plan as well.’
I heard the bedsprings and new she was ready for me to join her. The man reached through the mirror, picked up the soap and we washed our hands together in the water. I left the taps on - just in case. The man’s hair was longer, and the grey that was once in it was gone now.
‘I could have stayed like you.’
‘No you couldn’t. Nothing personal, but you were inevitable. The result of all the decisions I have made and am yet to make… whether they were right or wrong doesn’t matter.’
‘I must have been happy once.’
‘I’m sure we were.’
‘What changed then?’
‘Everything and everyone changes; you can’t expect everything to stay as it is, in a little pink bubble of hormonal bliss.’
‘I could have tried?’
‘We would have failed. It is as futile as trying to pull the stars from the sky. Time makes us change whether we want to or not.’
I sat back on the toilet and stared up at the man in the mirror who was now looking down at me. He reached through the mirror and turned the taps off, making the music from the next room louder. His hair even longer, darker and his face was hairless. He was so young. He had his arm round a girl in a long black skirt and a tight over-bust corset who smiled at me with the grey-blue eyes of a wolf. He began to speak, looking down at her.
‘We were happy. Then it ended.’
‘Why did it end?’
‘It wasn’t meant to be. It would have been a mistake.’
‘A mistake I wish I had made.’
‘Maybe so…’ He kissed her on the top of her head. ‘But a mistake non-the-less. And one that one that would have hurt more than you’ll ever know. Love is about commitment, compromise. Living for each other. We had different lives to lead. We were a beautiful distraction but it was time to move on.’
I stood up and walked back over to the mirror. She seemed happy to see me. I took her by the hand and she smiled. I led her to where I was standing in the bathroom and slowly leaned in to kiss her lips, but I was startled by a voice from the next room. When I looked back she was once again beside the mirror, smiling at me. The man in the mirror leaned forward.
‘There isn’t any point in thinking over where you went wrong. Just accept the situation, and move on.’
‘I have a choice to make.’
‘You’ve already made it… It’s a matter of following it through now.’
‘I know.’
‘What you had is gone.’
He motioned to where the girl was stood, but she was gone now. I wanted her to come back, but I knew I’d never see her again. The man in the mirror began ageing slowly before my eyes - the goatee returned, the hair changed lengths, and the grey returned. Until, once again, he was the same man as me. I reached out to touch his face, and he did the same, but all we felt was mirror. Lucy was shouting from the next room, half worried, half impatient, but always demanding. I knew what I had to do.
I dried my hands on the towel and walked out of the bathroom, down the stairs, grabbing my coat and walking out the door for the last time.


© 2008 Sean M. Palfrey

My Review

Would you like to review this Story?
Login | Register


Very imaginative and a very vivid character. I liked how you walked the character back through a few times in his life, his looks always younger, always happier it seems. The ending was very good... him leaving.

" 'Was I happy?'
'Is anyone ever truly happy?' "

Posted 13 Years Ago

Request Read Request
Add to Library My Library
Subscribe Subscribe


1 Review
Added on February 10, 2008


Sean M. Palfrey
Sean M. Palfrey

Scunthorpe, United Kingdom

I'm 21, and am a former Creative Writing and English student at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth where I was fortunate enough to be taught by (among others) Jem Poster, Matthew Francis, and Tiffan.. more..