The Next Word

One word and one word alone, Matthew knew, would decide if he would be led on a path to eternal happiness, or if he’d be forever alone.

Man drinking alcohol out of a glass

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The next word to come out of Matthew Vinatieri’s mouth would undoubtedly be the most important one of his life.

This was, to say the very least, an unfortunate turn of events.

Meanwhile, somewhere well outside the confines of Matthew’s lips, the universe was acting predictably uncooperative, as per its usual state of being. Over the loudspeakers, Billy Joel’s voice crooned about Brenda and Eddie who were still going steady in the summer of ’75. The sun was setting. The lights were dimming. The murmur of unrelated lives haphazardly congregated together but for one night grew louder and louder. A bartender poured out another pair of shots for two men in business suits who had been sitting in the same stools since happy hour and who would undoubtedly be there until closing time. Behind them, a group of women celebrated a birthday with shrieks and toasts and glasses of overpriced wine that splished and splashed onto the floor while an older man with sunglasses and a suspiciously runny nose stumbled out of the bathroom door and nearly slipped and fell over a poorly dressed college student who was drinking by himself in the corner with his eyes glued to a hockey game playing on the television screen above the bar, and all the while the dinner crowd continued to shuffle out while the cocktail crowd drunkenly stumbled its way in, and by this point Brenda and Eddie had already gotten an apartment with deep pile carpet and a couple of paintings from Sears. Yet none of the noise and none of the static surrounding Matthew seemed to have the slightest bit of sympathy that the next damn word to come out of his stupid mouth would be the most important one of his damn stupid life.

On the bright side, at least Matthew knew to where he was supposed to direct this said word. That part was easy enough. It was to be directed — at an adequate volume and with a moderate tempo — towards the neighboring stool which stood approximately two feet away from him.

Or, to be slightly more specific, to the man who was sitting on the neighboring stool which stood approximately two feet away from him.

A man named Brandon Kimmel.

Brandon. Twenty-nine years of age with a scruffy beard and blue eyes and a tattoo on his forearm and who was also a good two inches shorter than his dating profile had previously suggested, which Matthew was more than willing to forgive in its totality simply in exchange for Brandon’s unconditional and undying love.

Which, to Matthew, seemed like a fair trade.

And to his credit, the glass of bourbon perspiring on the bar top next to him seemed to agree. Matthew took a nervous sip from it, and another one after that. The bourbon lit a fire on his lips that cascaded to the back of his throat and exploded all the way down to the pit of his stomach. This was already Matthew’s third drink of the night. The first had been a beer he had guzzled frantically while showering, while the second had been a far too strong Irish coffee he had smuggled onto the subway.

The drinks, of course, were intended to serve a very important purpose. They were there to calm Matthew’s nerves, which were in desperate need of calming. Though in defense of his nerves, there weren’t too many first dates for Matthew Vinatieri. Second dates were even rarer. And by this point, Matthew wasn’t quite sure what exactly a third date entailed or if such a thing even actually existed.

Needless to say, it was important for Matthew to get off on the right foot — even if that foot had been rendered slightly inebriated and undeniably uncoordinated. Yet thus far, those three drinks had conspired together to do just the opposite. Rather than making his words silky smooth, the alcohol blended them all up like a cheap cocktail which swished and swirled around Matthew’s head in a jumbled mess. Every little thing made him dumbstruck and confused and in desperate hope that perhaps a fourth drink could get the other three to behave properly.

Every little thing going on was too much. Even little things like simple questions. Which, coincidentally, is exactly what Brandon had asked Matthew.

A simple, little question.

There was no doubt about it, either. There were all the hallmarks of a simple, little question. Small words. Few syllables. Limited variety of letters. All of which formed together into a short and concise question. It even ended in a clear and defined question mark, too. Granted, Brandon had asked this question verbally, so therefore there hadn’t necessarily been a visible, literal, tangible question mark. Per say. But it was still there, all right. Matthew could see it just fine. Brandon’s intonation had been nothing short of a grammatical symphony. It rose in a crescendo, up and up and up before swooping down and then, at the very last second before it crashed into the ground with a fiery flame, it swooped back up again and trailed off into the dimly lit noise of the bar, twirling and twisting in and around itself into a perfectly formed question mark before it all faded away graciously like a puff of smoke whispering something softly into the dead of night.

So, yes. It had been a simple, little question. And at the tail end of that question, there awaited only two answers. Either Matthew could say “yes.” Or he could say “no.”

That was it. Two little words. “Yes” and “no.”

It sounded easy enough. But Matthew knew better. Oh, did he know better. Matthew knew that those two little words were in fact worlds apart. Galaxies, even. And Matthew also knew that whichever answer he picked, whichever word he uttered out of his stupid mouth, it would undoubtedly be the most important one in his life. Deep down, Matthew knew that word would determine whether or not there would be a second date or, dare he even dream, a third date after that. One word and one word alone would decide if Matthew would be led on a path to eternal happiness, or if he’d be forever alone.

“Yes.” Or “no.”

Brenda and Eddie were already starting to fight when the money got tight and Matthew needed to make a decision.

He prodded each word.

First, there was “yes.”

“Yes” seemed nice.

“Yes” was positive, for starters. It was agreeable. It was outgoing and popular and optimistic about the future and it seized the day. “Yes” was the sort of word that looked at the glass as half full. It looked at life with a can-do attitude. And at the end of it all, “yes” led to a plan. Better yet. To a realization that things happen for a reason and that everything works out in the end as long as you believe that they will, gosh darn it.

“Yes” was all smiles and sunshine and kittens. People like “yes.” And more importantly, people like people who say “yes.”

And yet. The more Matthew thought about it, maybe, just maybe, “yes” was a little bit too nice. Maybe it was just a little bit too eager to please.

“Yes” could be simple-minded. Naïve. Stupid. Desperate. And if there was anything Matthew couldn’t afford to come across as, it was simple-minded and naïve and stupid and desperate.

Maybe, just maybe, what Matthew needed was a “no.”

“No” was critical, true. But “no” was also thoughtful. Analytical. “No” was a rebel. Anti-establishment. Black flag. Independent. Punk rock. “No” was a master of its own destiny. “No” didn’t get dictated to by life. On the contrary. “No” grabbed life by the proverbial genitals and told it what the damn plan was. And if life didn’t like it, “no” told it precisely where it could stick it.

“No” was strong.

People like strong.

And yet. “No” could also be a bit of a stick in the mud, too, couldn’t it? “No” could be a bit of a jerk. “No” upsets people. “No” causes waves. And sometimes, people just want to float on calm waters.

Matthew took another sip of his drink.

Time was running out. So was his bourbon.

He grimaced. His face twitched. He hoped that any sort of noise would just hop out of his mouth, all by its own doing. That an answer would find itself.

By now, Brenda and Eddie had had it already by the summer of ’75.

Matthew needed to say something. Anything. And now. So, he weighed both options. He examined their benefits. Inspected their detriments. Made mental tally marks of what they offered and where they fit in and how they could each single-handedly change his life from here on out. And after carefully weighing both options and counting their tallies, he flipped a coin.

It landed with a thud.

“No,” he blurted out. “I mean, not really. No. I don’t really follow any of that stuff. Not really.”

Brandon smiled that smile of his. “Oh, that’s all right,” he said. “You know, I’m actually sort of into astrology myself. I think it’s sort of fun, you know?”

Matthew nodded. The nod was a lie, though. Clearly, he didn’t know. He didn’t know anything. Matthew didn’t know anything for one thing, that is. That this was it. That he had picked incorrectly. And that now, there was no other conclusion to draw other than that he was clearly on a path to eternal loneliness. There would be no second date, he figured, and there would certainly be no third date. Not after an answer like that. No. There would only be more bourbon and Irish coffees smuggled onto the subway and beers drank in the shower.

Well outside the confines of Matthew’s lips, the lights in the bar continued to dim. The dinner crowd dwindled. The cocktail crowd grew larger and larger. Shots were kicked and overpriced alcohol splished and splashed and people stumbled in and out of doors. From a stool approximately two feet away, Brandon smiled that smile of his, a smile which completely escaped Matthew’s notice. And in the background, Billy Joel’s voice crooned about how the best they could do was to pick up the pieces, but that they always knew they’d both find a way to get by.

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