Dad eyes the book I carry in. “I suppose your teacher told you that Romeo and Juliet was a very tragic and romantic story.”
“I don’t know. It’s written all weird,” I tell him. “But yeah. Basically, well, you know the story. Romantic and tragic, like you said. I think it’s kinda stupid.”
Dad taps his chin and looks thoughtful. “I always thought that it was a very happy story.”
“Romeo and Juliet. They were young lovers and they loved each other and were able to consummate their passions. I always thought that it was a very happy story,” Dad says almost plaintively.
“Dad! It’s not a happy story!” I exclaim, trying not to laugh. “They die in the end! It’s sad!”
For a moment he pauses, then he sits down and pats the seat on the cough next to him. “Sit down next to me, son, and I’ll tell you a tragic and romantic story.”
I do so and wait. Whatever it is, it’s probably more interesting than Mister She-doth-teach-the-stars-to-shine.
“Well. I knew two people, and their story was very tragic but very romantic. I’ll tell it to you.
I met them before, in a bar near a major port. I forget where, but it was raining and the air was dark and filled with tobacco smoke. I was young and trusting then, son, so I politely sat down next to another young man. He was one of the big burly sailors from the cargo ships and would be heading up north when the storm cleared. We sat and he made this way through a lot of cheap beer. I was going to walk away, but then he bought me a drink and started talking to me about his sweetheart named Maxie, an old honey he had never gotten over. He told me that he was going back to work on the ships and he would go as far away as possible on the ocean so that he would never have to remember ever again. The sailor, he wasn’t quite drunk, but he definitely wasn’t fully sober. He continued talking about his old sweetheart until he suddenly shouted that he would go get a photo, ‘right now,’ so I could see his ‘darlin’.’ He ran off right then, and I remember thinking, ‘What a loser.’ I wasn’t a very kind young man, was I?
So I bought another drink. It was raining outside, so the road had washed out in the rain. But the bar was very warm and rather comforting on a day like that. And pretty soon, another young man came in. He was a scholarly-looking graduate student wearing a funny sort of cologne that stuck to the air, and he carried a briefcase, just like this, with his hands curled around the handle, like this. That student, he sat on the stool where the other man had sat just seconds ago and ordered vodka. Now, I didn’t like vodka much, so I didn’t pay much attention to him. But after a few sips, he began talking about how much he loved his old sweetheart and wished they were together again. He was talking to fast. Kept going on about his mon chéri, Archie. I thought it was short for Alexandra or something at that time. This man, he couldn’t hold his liquor very well. His face turned red and blotchy, and he began pounding the table like a common man and saying that he was taking the landline train and heading far south today.
He talked more. Said he just couldn’t go on like this, without his sweetheart. Said they were going to be married. Married. That man, he couldn’t have been older than me then, but he was already talking with the bitterness of decades. He leaned close enough to me so that I could smell the vodka on his breath. And he told me it was him that broke off the engagement. He never said why. Kept on going on about how he could never forgive himself now. About if he just had one more chance. He finished his drink. And then, he picked up his trunk and offered his hand. He thanked me for kindly listening to him and said, ‘I’ll never see mon chéri ever again, will I? I can’t, and I’ll never stop regretting, will I? If I just had one more chance. Just one more chance, I’d propose all over again, and this time I’d never let go.’ He left the bartender a tip and turned to me again. ‘My name is Maxie, by the way.’
We shook hands. He left. Through the rain, I heard the train gear up and leave.
Just then, the sailor came back and sat down next to me again and told me that he thought could still smell his old darling. He was waving a photograph around so fast I couldn’t see it. I didn’t pay that much attention to him until he getting very drunk. He told me that it was all his fault, and I didn’t bother to ask him about what “it” was. Then he started repeating the very same line that the scholar had just bemoaned. ‘If I just had one more chance to make it right! Just one! Please, just one chance! I’d give up drinking and cursing and gambling for just one chance!’ I nodded and stirred my drink a bit. Pretty soon, the sailor got drunk and he patted me on the back and told me that if I ever met my ‘mushy true love,’ never let go because I’d never get another chance. He threw his drink down and practically shouted, ‘What wouldn’t I give for one more chance?’
I held out my hand and offered my biker nickname. He punched my shoulder and said it was a good name. ‘My name… My name’s Archie, by the way. Nice to meet you.”
Then he left the bar, presumably to his ship.’
Dad pauses and smiles sadly. “Very depressing, no?”
I drum my fingers against my kneecap. “Wait. So… They were gay?”
Dad nods. “Well. Yes. Actually, Archie was initially perfectly straight, but I suppose that love was strong enough to change him. I thought it was romantic, really, how much you can love a person.”
Okay. Not really a subject I want to talk about. I change keys. “The first guy, Archie? So his… Sweetheart, his sweetheart left on the train just seconds before he came back?”
I gape. That sucks! That really, really, does suck! “And when they both wanted a second chance to patch things up?”
“I suppose you should be glad that there are cellphones nowadays,” Dad tells me lightly.
I rub my head. “Just imagine, Dad! If…Who? Markie? Maxwell? If that other guy had just paused a few seconds…”
“Just imagine.” He nods. “By the way, his name was Maxie. Archie and Maxie.”
I suddenly laugh. “Dad! Get it? Archie and Maxie? Just like the leaders of two Teams Aqua and Magma! They nearly destroyed the world, that’s what everyone told me.”
Dad nods. “Actually, son, that thirty years ago, I had met Archie and Maxie in that very bar.”
I freeze. “You mean… That was them?”
Dad nods. “I… I met them separately on occasion after that. Mind you, that was years later. They both had become men consumed in loss and hatred and thought that of the world. And when I met the individually for the last time, neither of them had gotten over it.”
I glance down at my book. Somehow Romeo and Juliet seems like a happy fairytale. “That’s… Sad,” I say. “Wait, so you never told them?”
Dad looks away. “I… I’ve done a lot of bad things in my life, son.”
We sit for a while in silence.
“I… I heard they met again.”
“When there was only time for impending doom.”
I kick my legs. “…I wonder if…”
“As they were dying and forced to kill one another, sources tell me that they did have a fairytale ending though.”
“They got better?” I ask hopefully.
Dad looks at me funny. “…I suppose. Archie was finally forced to kill Maxie, who died in his arms after they swore ‘undying love and forgiveness’ for each other. Well, that was what I was told. I like to believe it.”
I look down at my book to hide a bit of water in my eye.
I had to go out and have a little cry when we finished Romeo and Juliet in class. After school, the teacher took me aside and said how glad she was that I was so touched by Shakespeare’s love story.
I didn’t tell her that I wasn’t even thinking of Romeo and Juliet.