The girl at the bar sat down next to me on a night when I really would’ve preferred to drink alone. Not that I was knocking them back or anything so indelicate as that. No, I was just sitting there with a glass full of straw-colored wine, chilled enough that misty little pearls of condensation were rolling down the sides. Because that’s what I do when I need to think. I sip wine and watch my friends bartend. But this girl sauntered in and kind of whirled her purse onto the bar stool next to me and sat down one over, leaving the gap that- for girls alone at a bar- always seems to announce I don’t know you but I’m willing to have a conversation, clear as day. (It’s very distinguishable from the three chairs away gap that emphasizes I’m good on the talking with strangers at a bar, thanks.) She didn’t start talking to me right away, she ordered wine herself and then studied the menu for a few minutes.
I scrolled idly through Instagram on my phone, double-tapping my little heart on pictures of happy people and pretty clothes, plates of food artfully presented, babies with chubby cheeks grinning up at me. I wondered if I would ever have a chubby-cheeked baby. I wondered why I always had to wonder about stupid questions that couldn’t possibly be answered without a crystal ball. Then I drank more wine because I was annoyed at my own dumb, cycling thoughts.
The girl at the bar was looking at me. She said, “You look like someone who is sad and happy at the same time”, and I just blinked and said I was, because it seemed like a decent enough summary.
And without me saying a word about why, she said, “I think people heal differently than we always expect them to. You know, I went through a really bad breakup about two years ago and it took me a long time to stop wondering where I was in the ‘healing process’.” She made scare quotes with her hands. “Don’t you think that’s a terrible word for it? Process. I don’t know about you, but to me, it conjures up images of a straight line, a mechanical assembly. People don’t heal in a process. They heal like the weather, like spring coming down into the valley after a long hard winter. Little glimmers of sun and sky that scatter off the ice, that’s what you feel first. And you think, maybe this is it, the ice might be cracking. I’m going to feel warm inside again and not hurt all over and have these sharp jagged edges tearing rips in my lungs when I breathe.
But winter in NEPA has deep claws, and you don’t heal in just a day of weak sunlight.”
She paused to take a long drink of her wine and I stared at the bar top, remembering my winter, seeing ice and sleet and brown eyes like coffee.
“Then you get a week or two where it doesn’t hit below freezing, not at all, and you start to remember in your bones the idea of spring. Slowly, slow as a hidden seed sprouting, the healing goes. Your heart hurts as it happens, maybe because it happens, because the idea that you can laugh again is so strange. But you do,” she murmured, half to herself. “You laugh at stupid jokes again and go on dates and inch by inch, you reclaim yourself, just like spring stealing pieces of the days right from the heart of winter.
Ah, there’s always that one day, you know,” she went on, and I knew what she was going to say before the words were formed. Everyone in this area knows those days. “That one day in March when the sun just explodes and the air is warm and the breeze is so sweet across your face you’d think all the mothers in the world put their love into that touch. I think that part of healing is like when you meet someone new. You go on a really wonderful date, the kind where everything else is a blur but you’re focused on what’s happening between you and them, and it’s good and right. Those days are just like that: a good sharp focus on spring. A spark.”
I laughed, because a few weeks ago I had been on a date just like that, and things were still going really well. It was like spring inside my chest: sparks and sunlight. I wanted more of it. But the winter memories of a ghost still occasionally haunted me, popping out of corners late at night to rattle his chains in my heart.
I told her, “I know what you mean, but those are just a day, or two at best. They don’t stay. Around here, you have one good day and then winter bullies its way in again.” She nodded with a wry grimace. “No, they don’t stay. But-” she jabbed a finger in the air. “They come back.
“It’s not a process, remember. There’s no one-step, two-step, three-step, four. Maybe you meet someone and have this great connection and spring is coming- you can feel it, that glorious sunshiny day- and then boom. You hear your ex is dating someone else. Or it’s their birthday, or you see them out at a bar. Winter in Pennsylvania clings desperately to the remnants of his season. He’ll throw a few more icy winds and early April flurries in your healing face. But he can’t hold on forever, dear, and neither can you. That’s just nature. Cycles. Gardeners know them; women know them. Spring comes, every year. And time heals, every day.”
Suddenly she smiled and laughed at herself a little and shook her long blonde hair back over her shoulders. “Sorry,” she said, “I always get a bit maudlin when I drink wine.” And then she shot me one piercing glance from her blue eyes and said, “Be happy”, and she got up and walked out the door. I hadn’t even realized her wine glass was empty.
The restaurant was humming with the noise of a busy dining room. Glasses clinked and people laughed and the strong, spicy scent of rosemary and basil graced the air like a benediction. I sat there for a few minutes, enjoying the weight of sparks and sunshine inside me, thinking about healing and happiness. And I knew that I was. I am.
So I picked up my phone, and I called my boyfriend, and I said “hey handsome, how was your day?”
– – – –
Healing, like spring, is a gift of God and nature. But in the paradoxical way of all God’s gifts, it asks something from you in return. You can heal without being happy. You can stare at the smooth scars on your heart forever, wondering how and why. Or you can smile, dance, drink cold white wine in the summer twilight, burn your fingers trying to eat meat straight off the grill. And on those occasional nights when the stormy wind gusts and the sky is dark and troubled and something triggers your old heartbreak like an arthritic ache in your bones, don’t hide from the rain. Go out and dance in it. Make it good. Make it beautiful.